Desormeaux lets the bon mots roll for Belmont week

A length and a quarter, as measured by horse racing, isn't that much in the wider world. It's a few strides across the living room or the height of a garden shed. The average bank line is longer. Laid out on a green, even the weekend golfer would expect to sink a putt that length.

Yet a length and a quarter is the difference between Exaggerator going for a Triple Crown on Saturday in the 148th Belmont Stakes and Exaggerator trying to prove that his Preakness victory was not just another romp in the slop he supposedly needs to be at his best.

"I hope the sun is shining and the track is dry," his trainer, Keith Desormeaux, said. "I'd like to put that to rest."

The length and a quarter by which Exaggerator finished second to Nyquist in the Kentucky Derby is also the difference between Desormeaux being elevated as the overnight sensation of Belmont Stakes week and Desormeaux being just the latest trainer trying make his colt the most admirable survivor of another grueling classic season.

Trainers of horses going for the Triple Crown are exposed to a public far and wide. Trainers who win the Preakness and show up at the Belmont without the Derby winner in the field -- as in this year's running -- enjoy a somewhat different level of attention. There are no tickets to "Hamilton" for Desormeaux, no ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, no throwing the first pitch for the Mets or Yankees.

Reaching out to Desormeaux late Tuesday afternoon, the day before Belmont entries, this reporter expected the trainer to be at his Belmont barn, fussing over his colt after feeding time, a hands-on horseman obsessed with yet another detail of the job.

"Oh, no," Desormeaux said. "I'm at the hotel washing saddle towels."


"That's no joke," he said. "I'm washing the towels to give Julie a break. She's back at the barn feeding."

The Julie to which Desormeaux referred is Julie Clark, the trainer's significant other and top assistant, who has been at Exaggerator's side since the colt first broke cover last summer by winning the Saratoga Special. Their journey with the racy son of Curlin has taken them back and forth across the country, running at the top of the game. Now comes the Belmont Stakes, a race that seems ideally suited to Exaggerator in terms of talent, temperament and DNA.

Such factors did not discourage the connections of a dozen other 3-year-olds from entering the Belmont, with some of them possibly heartened by the reviews of Exaggerator's one and only work over the Belmont Park main course Tuesday morning. The time was fine, and he galloped out like a horse looking for more. But there were signs along the way -- bearing out on the turn, pinning his ears nearing the finish -- that weren't typical of his previous training.

"His action is different over this track, which is interesting," Desormeaux said.

Something "interesting" coming up just five days before a $1.5 million classic at 1-1/2 miles is not what a trainer likes to hear himself say. Exaggerator's action seemed to work just fine in his Santa Anita Derby romp, his charge from the back of the pack in the Kentucky Derby and his almost casual dismantling of the Preakness after a hot pace cooked Nyquist.

"I'm still trying to compute it all," Desormeaux said. "It's different, his action, but not in a bad way. I guess because it is deeper, more sandy. The important thing is that he didn't struggle with it, and he came back happy."

Other than the Japanese colt Lani -- who has become more of a "World of Warcraft" avatar than a serious contender -- Exaggerator will be the only Belmont runner who danced all three Triple Crown tangos in 2016. Except for Woody Stephens, most trainers find the Belmont to be a one-off experience that is a challenge from all angles. Even then, only one of Woody's five straight Belmont winners from 1982 to 1986 competed in the Derby and Preakness as well.

As a Belmont Stakes rookie, Desormeaux appreciates the challenge.

"That's true," he said. "But at least I can quote maybe one of Woody Stephens's cliches, how 'the water gets mighty deep once you cross the Hudson.'"

It was more like, "the buildings get pretty tall," as Stephens scholars will attest. Desormeaux stood immediately corrected.

"Oh, that's how it goes," he said. "The water had nothing to do with it. It's the buildings. I can't wait to tell Julie that one."

Desormeaux had a laugh at his own expense and copped to the convoluted stylings of his native Louisiana tongue, which he referred to with "self-depreciation."

"We tease ourselves all the time," Desormeaux said. "Between me, Kent and Eric Guillot, we can cut up the English language pretty good."

Kent Desormeaux, Keith's talented, tormented brother, worked Exaggerator that morning but was back under the wraps of his voluntary alcoholism treatment this week, so he could not defend himself. Guillot, meanwhile, proudly displays his Louisiana patois and did so in spades while running the maiden Laoban against Exaggerator in the Preakness.

In the end, though, Keith Desormeaux says he'll let Exaggerator do the talking.

"I keep telling myself all this comes along with finally getting a horse that's worth all the trouble," Desormeaux said. "And, boy, is he worth it."