John Keith Desormeaux, a David among trainers, will attempt to slay a Goliath Saturday when he sends out longshots Sueno and Easy Shot to face favored Coliseum and others in the Grade III Sham Stakes at one mile over the Santa Anita main track.
The $100,000 in purse money offered is a relative afterthought. Horsemen on the Triple Crown trail recognize the Sham as the West Coast's first major steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby on May 4, offering 10 qualifying points for the Run for the Roses to the winner.
Sueno broke his maiden in an $80,000 claiming race at Del Mar before winning a restricted stakes at Golden Gate Fields on Dec. 1, while Easy Shot is coming off an $80,000 maiden claiming win at Del Mar Nov. 30, not exactly victories that would seem to pose serious threats to Bob Baffert trainee Coliseum, a 6 ¾-length debut winner and Jon White's even-money morning line choice.
But that didn't dissuade Desormeaux, whose signature upsets in the past include those of Texas Red, 13-1 winner of the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita in 2014; Exaggerator, winner of the Grade II Saratoga Special and the Delta Jackpot as a two-year-old in 2015 and the Santa Anita Derby, Preakness and Haskell at three in 2016; and I've Struck a Nerve, stunning winner of the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes in 2013 at odds of 135-1.
“I don't know if Exaggerator and Texas Red were up against the likes of Coliseum when they won,” Desormeaux said, “but he only has one start, so maybe we can do some damage. My two horses are doing great.
“Sueno has come around like a real class horse should. He's been developing and seems to accept the extra work we've put on him in order to participate in races like the Sham, so it's just a matter of if he's fast enough, and there's only one way to find out.
“We're kind of taking a shot with Easy Shot, pun intended. Calumet (Farm, owner of the son of Trappe Shot) loves to compete at the highest levels (Calumet led all North American breeders in starts last year with more than 1,600, earning over $8.2 million).
“Mr. (Brad) Kelley (who now leases fabled Calumet Farm from an investment group) does not need to be the favorite in every race he runs. He knows the only way to accumulate Derby points is to run for them. He loves to take a shot and we'll do that with Easy Shot.
“I know we're seemingly up against it, but this is the time of the year to swing for the fences. Mr. Kelley is all in, and it's an absolute honor for me to be able to work for such a storied operation. I know he hasn't owned it since its inception, but he sure is carrying on the tradition with valor.”
Established in 1924, Calumet dominated racing starting in 1939 under trainer Ben A. Jones and his son, Jimmy, highlighted by two Triple Crown winners, Whirlaway in 1941 and Citation in 1948. Its famed devil's red and blue silks were worn by icons such as Eddie Arcaro, but now sport Kelley's black and gold as the devil's red and blue were sold to a Brazilian investment group.
“I'm very excited to be on the team,” Desormeaux added, “and if running a longshot is what Mr. Kelley wants, this is what he's going to get.”
Meanwhile, the 52-year-old older brother of Hall of Fame jockey and three-time Kentucky Derby winner Kent is delighted to be at Santa Anita, where he has 30 head on track.
“I had a good opening week so we're very optimistic,” Keith said. “I have some developing young horses, and there's no better place to prepare them. That's why I'm here. I'm excited about all the upcoming Derby prep races for 3-year-olds.
“That's my bread and butter. That's what I'm here for, to develop horses with Triple Crown potential, and there's no better place to do it than Southern California, so I'm very appreciative of having that opportunity.”
The recent record confirms Desormeaux's enthusiasm. In the past seven years, from 2012 through 2018, five of the Kentucky Derby winners were based in Southern California, four of them at Santa Anita: Justify (2018), Nyquist (2016), American Pharoah (2015) and I'll Have Another (2012). California Chrome (2014) was headquartered at Los Alamitos.
As to younger brother Kent turning 49 on Feb. 27 and needing just six wins to reach career victory 6,000 in North America, Keith was fraternally proud and will give Kent a leg up on Sueno in the Sham.
“I hope I'm the one lucky enough to put him on number 6,000,” he said. “Some might shrug off statistics as just a name, just a number, but I know he appreciates competing in Southern California, too, and although he must be aware that at 49, a jockey's career is in the homestretch, he's still amazingly healthy and strong.
“I don't know how he does it, but I'm confident he'll be happy to reach that plateau, and beyond.”
Brotherly love, to be sure.
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