05/05/2016 8:06AM

Kentucky Derby: Desormeaux brothers team up with Exaggerator

Benoit & Associates
Jockey Kent Desormeaux (left) and his brother, trainer Keith Desormeaux, celebrate Exaggerator's victory in the Santa Anita Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Mom and Dad will be here. So will the three sisters and some of their kids and other family members – or a fair percentage of the population of Vermilion Parish, La.

“This isn’t just for me and Keith and the family,” said Kent Desormeaux, the Hall of Fame jockey who will ride Exaggerator for his older brother, trainer Keith Desormeaux, in the 142nd Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs. “It’s for Cajun pride. This is huge.”

Harris and Brenda Desormeaux raised six kids on an ample Maurice, La., estate that has been in Brenda’s family, the Heberts, for more than 100 years. (Kip, the youngest, will be the lone sibling absent Saturday among the nearly 30 family and friends in attendance.) Maurice (pop. 964) is a quiet place where Keith and Kent, the two oldest, grew up playing basketball and baseball and figuring out how to make their marks in the bigger world out there.

Riding racehorses appealed to an undersized Kent at a young age, and one of his first rides in competition was at the old Acadiana Downs in nearby Lafayette, where match races were a convenient excuse for Cajun cowboys and self-described coonasses to get together and have a good ol’ time over boudin and turducken.

“We’ve come a long way since Keith gave me a leg up on Yazoo in the backyard,” said Kent, referring to his first competitive mount. “Sometimes I still have to pinch myself.”

Kent Desormeaux, 46, has already won the Derby three times from 19 mounts dating to 1988, while Keith, 49, is a Derby rookie. Keith has been at Churchill on prior occasions, mostly to root for Kent in the Derby, although he has a hard time remembering exactly which years those were.

“I think Afternoon Deelites (eighth in 1995) might’ve been my last one,” said Keith, a Louisiana Tech University graduate who began training in 1991. “I know I wasn’t here for his first winner,” on Real Quiet in 1998, “because they interviewed me in the winner’s circle at Lone Star Park afterward.”

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Keith’s career as a trainer hasn’t approached what Kent has accomplished as a bona-fide superstar – Kent recently passed Chris McCarron for fifth on the all-time North American earnings list with more than $264 million – but both know there is more to life than racing statistics. Through the years, as with many brothers, their relationship has been alternately close and strained, perhaps best defined by the old proverb: “Me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousin; and me, my brother, and my cousin against the world.”

In other words, Keith has permitted himself to be critical of Kent – but beware anybody else who picks on his little brother. As he related in a lengthy 2013 Daily Racing Form story about their ups and downs, “I love him. Sure I do.”

In the modern era, there have only been two brother combinations in the Derby: In 1964, Jimmy Combest rode Mr. Moonlight to a seventh-place finish for brother Nick; Randy Romero was 12th on Dixieland Heat for brother Gerald in 1993.

“Ours is a family story, like ‘Casey’s Shadow’ all over again,” said Kent, referring to the iconic racing movie that chronicled the real-life struggles and triumphs of the Romeros, who also hail from Cajun country. “It’s surreal.”

Their chances as a Derby team are legitimate as Exaggerator figures to be the second wagering choice to the favored Nyquist in a field that will max out at 20.

“Look at this horse,” Keith Desormeaux said Monday as Exaggerator schooled in the Churchill paddock. “I mean, I know he’s mine, but that is one good-looking racehorse.”

Exaggerator, by Curlin, has the racing ability to match those looks. A devastating turn of foot carried him and Kent to a 6 1/4-length triumph in the Santa Anita Derby, and although critics are subtracting style points because of a wicked pace and sloppy track, Keith is optimistic.

“I honestly don’t think he needs an off racetrack,” he said. “Does he need a suicide pace? Good, consistent horses somehow find a way to win, regardless of the setup. He’s got some questions to answer in that regard Saturday, but then so do all the others.”

After Keith gives his brother a leg up in the paddock Saturday, the rest will be up to Kent, who is acutely aware of what’s at stake.

“The butterflies are fluttering a little more than usual,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of help aligning the stars. I’m not worried about myself, but, man, this means so much to everybody in the family. This is what we’ve all been waiting our whole lives for.”