Keith and Kent Desormeaux fell 1 1/4 lengths shy of becoming the first trainer-jockey brother combination to team to win the Kentucky Derby, with the late-running Exaggerator finishing second to unbeaten Nyquist. Two weeks later, the Desormeauxs can achieve that first in the Preakness, which has the added dimension of being in Maryland, where both brothers really launched their racing careers.
“This is a tribute to Charlie Hadry and David Vance,” Kent Desormeaux said by phone, referencing two trainers fundamental to the brothers' careers. “We're there because of those two people. David Vance gave me the opportunity. Charlie Hadry gave Keith and I both the opportunity, and we learned our lessons well.”
Keith, who first came to Maryland as a college student looking to gallop horses as a summer job, was an assistant trainer to the highly respected Hadry for several years before going out on his own for good in 1990. (He also had some horses racing in his name in 1988).
Vance is now based in Kentucky and his longtime winter base of Oaklawn Park, but back then he raced in the summers at Louisiana Downs, where Kent Desormeaux was riding as a new apprentice.
“I had a verbal contract with him to follow him back to Oaklawn,” the two-time Preakness-winning jockey said. “He was noticeable of my skills and said, ‘I'll take you to Maryland, but you've got to go to Oaklawn and move on.' I had to get on my knees and beg Big Daddy, David Vance, to allow me to stay — understandably, because I was winning six a day. He let me off the hook. If he would have said, ‘No, you have to come to Oaklawn,' I would have gone. My career at that point was in David Vance's hands.”
Instead, Kent Desormeaux set a record of 450 wins that year en route to being the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice jockey, which he followed with 471 in 1988. In 1989, riding in Maryland during the day and Penn National at night, Desormeaux took dead aim on the national win record, which he would shatter with 598 victories to clip Chris McCarron's 1974 mark of 546.
While driven to get the record, Desormeaux still made a significant sacrifice: He took a rare couple of days off that spring to attend the graduation of what would have been his class at North Vermillion High School in Maurice, La. Desormeaux had earned a GED from Airline High School in Bossier City, La., where Louisiana Downs is located.
“But they allowed me to walk, which I didn't out of respect to my peers,” Kent Desormeaux recalled. “My peers wanted me to walk in their class. I went to their graduation, but I did not walk. I was 19 years old, and I thought they did all the work and I hadn't and I didn't deserve that walk. So I stayed in my chair. It was one of my most emotional days. I was honored beyond belief to be invited by my high school class.”
Exaggerator, however, did walk. The Derby runner-up walked 30 minutes around the shedrow, a common routine on a Thursday for a Keith Desormeaux-trained horse. The son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin will resume training Friday.
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