06/09/2016 9:56AM

Team Exaggerator's leading lady

Barbara D. Livingston
Exaggerator with trainer Keith Desormeaux and Julie Clark, who has played an integral role in preparing Exaggerator for the Triple Crown – and in Desormeaux’s life.

ELMONT, N.Y. – Julie Clark remembers being horse crazy as early as age 4 and being captivated by the first running of the Breeders’ Cup back in 1984. But until recent years, she had largely spent her life with polo horses and thought the closest she’d get to participating with racehorses in the Triple Crown or the Breeders’ Cup was with the parties she’d throw on those days.

That’s all changed in the past 5 1/2 years, since she met trainer Keith Desormeaux at a horse sale in Kentucky. They became a couple, both personally and professionally, and they are having their greatest success yet with Exaggerator, who won the Santa Anita Derby, was second in the Kentucky Derby, won the Preakness Stakes, and on Saturday here at Belmont Park will be favored to add the Belmont Stakes to his glittering résumé.

Three weeks after winning the Preakness, Clark said the achievement has yet to fully sink in.

“You don’t put together that it’s real,” Clark said this week at Belmont Park. “It seems unattainable. To even be part of it, it doesn’t register yet.”

Clark has been part of the team alongside Exaggerator for every step of his journey, beginning last summer, when she traveled to Saratoga with several Desormeaux horses, including Exaggerator, who won the Saratoga Special. The trust Desormeaux has in Clark has been evident this spring, for he has been able to travel back to California, to his main base at Santa Anita, between Triple Crown starts while leaving Clark on-site.

“I don’t know how I’d do it without her,” Desormeaux said. “Couldn’t imagine. She takes care of me. It’s easy for me to get rattled, especially with all this moving and relocating, but she makes everything comfortable, for the horses and all the people.

“I’m a nomad, like everyone else on the racetrack, but change is tough on me. Moving around is not my nature. She adapts.”

Clark has been on the move much of her life. A native of Sarnia, Ontario – a city on Lake Huron that is closer to Detroit than Toronto – Clark moved to Vancouver at age 18 “when I saw an ad for a polo club and pretended I knew what I was doing,” she said.

It’s obviously false modesty because she clearly knows her way around horses and fashioned a 20-year career in polo, traveling from Vancouver to Jackson Hole and Aspen as well as Palm Springs.

“I trained, rode, and played some, never a superstar but enough to keep in the game,” she said.

Over the years, she would dabble in Thoroughbred racehorses, pinhooking weanlings to sell as yearlings or yearlings to sell as 2-year-olds. She was living outside of Houston, still mainly working with polo horses but getting increasingly involved with racehorses, when she met Desormeaux.

Clark said she believes she and Desormeaux work well together because they have different strengths.

“It’s a typical man-woman thing,” she said. “I like to know the horses’ personalities, their attitudes, like to feed them. I like my horses big and round. Keith is a natural horseman. He understands how they’re made, how they go.

“He’s not one to push things. He doesn’t go to Bute,” she said, referring to Butazolidin, the regulated, commonly used analgesic. “He doesn’t want to mask it. He knows when to back off.”

They have great trust in each other’s judgment.

“If I’m on the road and say I want to do something, 99 percent of the time, he goes with me on that,” Clark said.

“She’s a great horseman,” Desormeaux said. “She helps me personally and professionally.”

Those who work with horses recognize that it’s a lifestyle as much as a job. To unwind from the demands and long hours of racing, Clark said she and Desormeaux “both like to run or go hike.”

“Keith’s not one to stay in the apartment,” Clark said. “Thursday is when he does bills. He goes stir-crazy.”

Desormeaux said his entire team, including exercise rider Jermal “Peedy” Landry, has been responsible for Exaggerator’s success.

“He looks so much better under this guy,” Desormeaux said as Exaggerator came off the track following a gallop on Monday under Landry. “If the rider is comfortable, the horse is comfortable.

“My guy at Santa Anita,” Desormeaux said, referring to Joasin Diego, “taught him to relax, to respond to the rider’s cues. Peedy has taken him to another level.

“A trainer can have the greatest program in the world, but if you don’t have good people, it doesn’t matter what you know.”