The Week in Review: Keith Desormeaux Has Another Bargain Basement Star

Had he done this once, maybe twice, the easy conclusion would be that trainer Keith Desormeaux is just lucky. Anyone can stumble onto a good horse that slipped through the cracks at the sales and was bought for a song. But with Desormeaux there’s obviously a lot more to it than that. He keeps finding these good horses that most everyone else overlooks, the latest example being Confidence Game (Candy Ride {Arg}), the $25,000 buy at Keeneland September who won Saturday’s $1-million GII Rebel S. at Oaklawn, securing a spot in the starting gate for the GI Kentucky Derby.

You can add him to a list that includes Exaggerator (Curlin), the $110,000 purchase who won the GI Preakness S. in 2016, and Texas Red (Afleet Alex), a $17,000 buy as a yearling at Keeneland September who won the 2014 GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Then there’s My Boy Jack (Creative Cause), a $20,000 purchase who won the GIII Southwest S. and earned $776,887, and Grade III winner Dalmore (Colonel John), who cost $47,000. Desormeaux bought Swipe (Birdstone) for $5,000. He earned $622,630.

How does he do it?

“The easiest way to explain it is that these horses have conformational flaws or maybe some issues on the X-rays that I can live with as a horseman but commercial sales people can’t,” Desormeaux said. “All I know is that I am buying athletes. Pedigree comes second to me. Conformational issues are secondary to me. I am buying balanced, athletic horses who are conformationally correct according to my standards. I look for innate things that make me think the horse is an athlete, things that I associate with class. Those are things that are hard to explain. I know that sounds more complicated than it should, but there you go.”

The first thing Desormeaux noticed about Confidence Game was that the yearling was selling later on in the sale, listed as hip number 1462, despite a strong pedigree. Not only is he by Candy Ride, but the dam is Eblouissante (Bernadini), who is a half-sister to Zenyatta (Street Cry {Ire}). Desormeaux figured there had to be a flaw somewhere, but he preferred not to know what it was because he didn’t want anything to interfere with his gut instincts that told him this was a horse worth buying.

“I do not know what the issue was,” he said. “The horse was late in the sale. I knew that, with his pedigree, he didn’t belong that late in the sale. I assumed there was something on the X-rays. I judged him on his athleticism. It didn’t matter to me what the X-rays said. I knew I had a nice horse. I did not even look at his X-rays. I did not call a vet. I did not call anyone. I bought him because I knew I was buying an athlete.”

It’s a different approach, but it’s working, and Desormeaux admits he gets a great deal of satisfaction in winning with horses that the deep-pocketed owners and their trainers didn’t want.

“I’m basically doing this with horses other people believe didn’t belong in their first string,” he said. “I know it’s a strong word, but they are castoffs. I take a lot of pride in using horsemanship and developing the horses. It’s not all me. We send them to April Mayberry in Florida and I have a hell of a crew at the track that does the grunt work. It all comes together to reach this goal. I take a lot of pride in it and that’s mainly because we are buying horses off the radar.”

Having had so much success with bargain buys, what could Desormeaux do if an owner ever sent him to the sales and let him buy expensive horses? After so many years when no one would give him that chance, Desormeaux has found an owner in Ben Gase who is willing to spend good money. At last year’s OBS Spring Sale, Gase and Desormeaux bought a Cairo Prince colt for $90,000, a Twirling Candy filly for $400,000 and a Bolt d’Oro filly for $650,000. They were back at it at the OBS June sale, buying a Munnings colt for $300,000. Gase is the founder and CEO of the shipping technology company R2 Logisticis.

“Has it been frustrating? No. But maybe if I was a little bit better at marketing myself or was more of a people person, I’d have those kinds of owners,” Desormeaux said. “But I do have a new guy, Ben Gase. He’s letting me spend in that higher realm. I respect him for giving me a chance. I think we will see big things happening with this guy very soon. I’ve had to change my m.o. I wouldn’t pay that kind of money for a horse without looking at the X-rays. I have too much sense for that.”

As for Confidence Game, he took a while to reward Desormeaux. He broke his maiden in his second career start, but followed that up with a fifth-place finish in the GIII Iroquois S. in which he never threatened. He turned a corner two starts later when winning a Churchill allowance and then ran third in the GIII Lecomte S. In the Rebel, he put it all together to win by a length at 18-1.

The GI Arkansas Derby could be next for him, but Desormeaux said he will also consider the GI Toyota Blue Grass S. and the GII Louisiana Derby. If he makes the Derby, he will be Desormeaux’s fourth starter in the race. If there, he will meet horses from the biggest stables in the sport, horses that cost in the high six figures or, in the case of possible Derby favorite Arabian Knight (Uncle Mo), $2.3 million. But you can count on Confidence Game being up to the task. Desormeaux’s horses, no matter what they cost, usually are.

Will Asmussen’s Records Ever Be Broken?

Steve Asmussen entered Sunday’s races with 10,006 career winners, a remarkable number that will only grow for some time to come. At age 57, Asmussen is a long way away from the end of his career and could eventually make it to win 15,000. That would take him staying active as a trainer until he is 72 while averaging 333 wins a year. Considering that he has averaged 419 wins a year since 2020, he might even soar well past 15,000.

Jerry Hollendorfer, who had only 47 wins last year, has the second most wins among active trainers with 7,759. He’s not going to catch him and neither will anyone else training today. Even in the era of the super trainers, there’s no one that operates the way Asmussen does. He wins at the highest levels of the sport yet still maintains strings at tracks like Sam Houston and Remington Park. Eighty-five of Asmussen’s 382 wins last year came in claiming races.

In 2022, Asmussen made 2,155 starts, 358 more than Karl Broberg, who was second in the category. By way of comparison, Asmussen sent out more than twice as many starters in 2022 as did Todd Pletcher, who had only 10 wins during the year in claiming races.

There’s no one else like Asmussen and that may always be the case. It’s hard to imagine anyone new coming around who has his appetite for winning and will operate at five or six tracks at once, with stakes horses and with claimers.

But that’s not what makes Asmussen virtually unpassable when it comes, not just to most career wins, but also to wins in a single year. With 650 wins in 2009, he also holds that record. For a large chunk of his career, Asmussen operated before foal crop numbers plummeted and so many tracks were forced to go to three and four-day weeks. In 2000, the first year in which Asmussen surpassed 200 wins on the year, there were 55,846 races run in the U.S. In 2009, his record year, there were 49,368. In 2021, the most recent years for which numbers are available, there were 33,567 races, a decline of nearly 40% since 2000.

Even Asmussen can’t keep up with his numbers from the early 2000s. In the record year of 2009, he made 2,944 starts. With 2,155 in 2022, that’s a drop off 26.8%.

They say records are meant to broken, a lesson reinforced recently in the NBA when Lebron James went past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the leading scorer in the history of the league. But in racing there is no Lebron coming after Asmussen. When it comes to winning races there’s Asmussen and no one else. His place in racing history seems secure.

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