08/03/2016 12:36PM

Hovdey: Desormeaux pushed the right button


Neither Keith Desormeaux nor Bob Baffert was on the scene at Monmouth Park last Sunday when Exaggerator beat American Freedom in the Haskell Invitational. Del Mar is a hard place to leave in the summer – all that beach traffic – and besides, it’s the horses who do the real work.

“I was back there all the week before,” said Desormeaux, referring to Saratoga, where Exaggerator trained for the Haskell. “Why didn’t I go back? I’m lazy.”

Right, and he’s also got a full barn at Del Mar that trains from sunrise to track closing every day, and being where he can see and touch his horses helps Desormeaux sleep at night. Julie Clark, the trainer’s assistant and significant other, did the honors in New Jersey.

As for Baffert, he had assistant Jim Barnes on the job at Monmouth, which has worked just fine in the past. Anyway, cross-country air travel with a quick turnaround isn’t exactly high among Baffert’s lifestyle priorities these days, especially after his heart attack in Dubai four years ago.

Still, watching from afar is no guarantee of immunity. Planted in view of a Del Mar big screen, Baffert saw Rafael Bejarano ride American Freedom to a very game second to Exaggerator and Kent Desormeaux, after which he hustled off to saddle American Pharoah’s little sister, American Cleopatra, in Del Mar’s third race (she won). On his way back to the box, Baffert was accosted, as he often is, by someone with something on his mind.

“What do you think, Bob?” came the question. “Did they get it right?”

“What are you talking about?” Baffert replied.

“The inquiry. With your horse.”

“I didn’t even know there was one,” Baffert said a couple of days later. “My first thought was, ‘Oh, no, don’t take second away from me.’ When I saw it was my rider claiming against the winner, I could see there was nothing there. I told the jock later he shouldn’t have wasted one. You need to save those for when you’ve got a shot.”

Keith Desormeaux didn’t see anything either because there really wasn’t much to see in terms of an objection, unless it was the dollar signs disappearing from the thought bubble over Bejarano’s head as Exaggerator blew past him inside the eighth pole. At that point, Exaggerator’s trainer was still chuckling at his own Hamlet moment that could have sent history in a whole different direction.

“I can show you the text to Elliott Walden the night before the entries,” Desormeaux said, referring to the general manager of WinStar Farm, where Exaggerator will stand.

“ ‘The way to win the Travers is to train at Saratoga and run in the Jim Dandy, so what am I doing going to the Haskell?’ ” Desormeaux said, reciting the substance of the message. “Then, when I saw the race on paper and the way the pace laid out, I knew I was going to the right place. That and $400,000 more in the purse, plus a Win and You’re In to the Breeders’ Cup. Actually, it was kind of a no-brainer.”

The contortions required for Desormeaux to come up with his “no-brainer” tell you a lot about the guy. He’ll chew on every detail until there’s nothing left but gristle and bone. What to do with Exaggerator – the Santa Anita Derby and Preakness winner – after his dismal effort in the Belmont Stakes was a question he was asked often. And in the modern world of constant communication and fitful transparency, he was required to deliver an answer, even if he didn’t have one.

“There was a time trainers didn’t say much at all,” Desormeaux noted. “And nobody asked.”

Bill Mott once was asked to name the toughest part of his job.

“Saying no,” he replied.

This is easy to understand, given the relentlessly forward momentum of racing, the pressure from heavily invested patrons, and the required participation of four-legged creatures who don’t always get with the program.

At some point, though, a trainer must say yes. Decisions come easier to trainers who have talented 3-year-olds in January. The path is preordained, with a few variations along the way but all leading toward the same set of Triple Crown goals.

Once the Belmont is in the books, all bets are off. The goals become a little more hazy. Haskell, Travers, Gold Cup, Breeders’ Cup: They’re all in the mix, along with the very real option of putting a hard-used young horse away for a few recuperative months and bringing him back as a more mature 4-year-old.

Desormeaux has been faced with such decisions when it comes to Exaggerator. When he said the Curlin colt was heading for the Travers through the Jim Dandy, his word was taken for gospel. When he changed his mind, the media – both social and otherwise – were flummoxed. They did not have a good line on this Desormeaux fellow yet, and here he was changing races in midstream. He said he did not like the way his horse was training at Saratoga, where he won the Saratoga Special the year before, and yet he said his horse was doing well physically and could simply train up to the Travers. Or not. He might as well have been speaking Esperanto.

“I know,” Desormeaux said. “Sometimes it takes a little time to figure things out.”

And this time, it was worth the wait.