MAURICE — “Are we still going?” Harris Desormeaux asked Brenda, his wife of 52 years, with just enough touch of doubt to make the visitor wonder whether he was serious.
After all, how often do you get a chance to see your sons become only the third set of siblings to reach the Kentucky Derby as a trainer/jockey tandem in the race’s 142-year history? The previous pair, Gerald and Randy Romero from just down the road in Erath, finished 12th with Dixieland Heat in 1993.
And not only that, but in Santa Anita Derby winner Exaggerator, Keith and Kent Desormeaux likely have one of the top betting choices Saturday at Churchill Downs.
“I liked this horse from the first time I ever sat on him,” jockey Kent said. “He has a lot of quality about him.”
He should know quality. It’s the 20th Derby for Kent, 46, a three-time winner and a Hall of Famer.
But it’s the first appearance in any Triple Crown race for Keith, 48, during a career that began in 1988 — the same year Kent made his Derby debut aboard Purdue King, finishing a distant 16th.
So it really was no surprise to see Brenda give her husband a sideways, “Are you kidding me?” glance. She reminded him they would be flying to Louisville on Monday instead of waiting until Thursday, as originally planned, because “We’d kind of gotten burned since Big Brown (Kent’s last Derby winner in 2008), but it would be an injustice if we didn’t go to see this. It can be a pretty special week.”
That’s why les parents of the Desormeaux famille, along with younger sisters Kristie, Kelli and Kalen and little brother Kip (Keith is named for Brenda’s late younger brother, and the “K” tradition stuck), in-laws and some of the 15 grandchildren will be occupying three houses in Louisville this week.
It’s a rarity when all six Desormeaux offspring are gathered together, because of Keith’s and Kent’s schedules.
“I’ve tried to simplify everything,” said Kent, who this weekend is riding at Los Alamitos, where he is the leading jockey so far in the meet. “When they get to Louisville, I want them to go to the grocery store when they get there, buy some meat and start cooking. And we’re all going to enjoy being around each other and act like a bunch of crazy Cajuns. But at the track, it’s got to be all about business.”
Keith is well aware that the brotherhood element will bring extra attention — much more than he has ever been involved with.
“I know it’s a story that the media is going to be interested in,” he said. “And it is pretty extraordinary. But my job as a trainer is keeping Exaggerator in his routine and as calm as possible, so I may be shooing people away from my barn with a baseball bat. Kent and I are just two guys who are working hard at their craft.”
Kent’s story is well-known: A riding prodigy of the area’s bush tracks (including Acadiana Downs, which Harris owned), he gravitated from the Louisiana circuit to Maryland, where in 1989 he won 598 races, a national record that still stands.
Along with that 2008 Derby victory aboard Big Brown, he just missed the Triple Crown in 1998 with Real Quiet and won the 2000 Derby aboard Fusaichi Pegasus.
Spending most of his time this century based in Southern California, Desormeaux, a 2004 Hall of Fame inductee, continues to be among the best jockeys in the country. He was 25th in winnings in 2015 at more than $7.5 million. Kent’s 5,741 career wins put him at No. 21 all-time, with no talk of retirement.
“I don’t think that’s ever entered his mind,” Keith said. “He knows athletes can only go on for so long, and maybe his body isn’t as flexible as it used to be. But the wisdom’s still there. There’s no better judge of pace and knowing when it’s time to tell his horse it’s time to go.”
Keith has labored more in the shadows, with 562 career victories worth more than $17 million. He was 34th in earnings in 2015, up from 62nd in 2014, when he was last based in Louisiana and Texas. The Santa Anita Derby victory with Exaggerator was Kent’s first in a Grade I race.
But Kent, who now rides most of the 35 horses in Keith’s stable, is quick to reject any notion that his older brother is a journeyman.
“I don’t know of any trainer who comes into this business and starts out at the top: Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas — none of them,” he said. “Quite honestly, I’ve never thought he was overdue for this. Keith is doing fine on his own timeline.”
Certainly Keith has never capitalized on his younger brother’s name and fame to secure Derby-caliber horses, especially since most of their careers have been spent in different areas of the country. Even Keith’s move to California came because his horses’ owners wanted to compete there rather than in Louisiana.
In late 2014, though, it looked like the Desormeauxs finally had a Derby contender when Texas Red won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. But injuries forced him off the Derby trail.
Last year, Matt Bryan, for whom I Struck a Nerve was a 135-1 upset winner of the 2013 Risen Star, entrusted Desormeaux with Exaggerator, whom he paid a personal-record $110,000 for at the 2014 Keeneland yearling sale. Keith has seldom gotten horses with such pedigree.
Exaggerator has four victories in nine starts, including the Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs in November, and his speed number in the Santa Anita was the best of any 3-year-old this year.
But Exaggerator also has finished behind unbeaten Derby favorite Nyquist three times.
“There’s no way getting around saying Nyquist is the horse to beat,” Keith said. “But we’ve got a maturing horse that we feel confident is going to be at his best on Derby day.”
Either way, the Desormeaux brothers will be doing it together.
Like all trainers and jockeys — like all brothers, for that matter — they have had their ups and downs, and they still get into disagreements because of their passions for their professions.
Bryan said it’s sometimes like trying to watch “oil and water mix” and that he gets out of the way rather than trying to referee.
“We usually get along,” Keith said. “But I know I can rip Kent after a bad workout with words I would never use with Gary Stevens and not feel guilty about it. Ultimately, it helps us both break down a race, figure out what we’re doing wrong and improve our work.”
Kent praises his brother’s attention to detail and his fairness in dealing with jockeys.
“He doesn’t expect just to follow his plan,” Kent said. “He wants you to take the horse and enjoy the ride. But sometimes it helps that we have tons of brotherly love going for us. We don’t have any trouble telling each other exactly what’s on our minds and getting over it.”
Certainly Keith wouldn’t take Kent off a horse — at least not without cause.
“My mother wouldn’t like it,” he said. “And I like her cooking too much.”
And while the uncertainties of racing make a return to this position down the road for the Desormeauxs no sure thing, Keith certainly is getting his second wind in California, and Kent is competing as physically fit and emotionally happy as he has in years.
His goal: Overtake Eddie Delahoussaye as the winningest Louisiana jockey of all time. He’s 642 behind but is prepared to ride for another decade to get there.
“My life is on fire right now,” he said.
Imagine, then, the emotional level of the Desormeaux brothers and the rest of the family this week.
“This is something a mother and father dream about,” Brenda said. “The boys have achieved so much, and they’re not done yet. If they win, I can’t think how we’re going to act.”
“It will be a party for sure,” he said.