West Saratoga is a Kentucky Derby long shot. But so was his trainer


The Athletic has live coverage of the 2024 Kentucky Derby, the 150th anniversary.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Larry Demeritte bends over and unwinds the wrap circling West Saratoga’s right rear leg. He does the same to the left and then scoots under the horse’s belly to help Donte Lowery, his assistant, with the animal’s front wraps. The job finished, Demeritte stands in front of the horse and next to his brother Patrick, who helps with the horses, and smiles widely.

A row of photographers squat next to Barn 42 and video cameras circle Demeritte as a boom mic stretches from its handler to poke in on Demeritte’s conversation. He is entirely unbothered by the production, as if somehow this attention is typical for a man who has two Graded Stakes wins throughout his four-decade career.

Preternaturally positive and armed with a quip for every occasion, Demeritte is the feel-good story of this Kentucky Derby, and a story, frankly, horse racing could use. A year ago, the sport’s premier race went off under a shadow after 12 horses died in the week leading up to the Derby and five entrants were scratched by post time.

Now here is Demeritte, a native of the Bahamas, in a profession in which Black trainers are a rarity; who has cancer for the second time while also in the throes of a rare heart disease; with a horse purchased for the price of a well-used Hyundai running in a field that includes a one-time yearling bought for $2.3 million; competing in his first Kentucky Derby 48 years after chasing a dream that took him out of a secure job in the Caribbean to the Churchill Downs barns.

But Demeritte, 74, is more than a man with a good story and a willingness to tell it. He’s a man who understands this is all about so much more than him. “I always say,’’ Demeritte begins, using a favorite segue to deliver a message, “when you look on a tombstone, you see when you are born and when you die and the dash in between. That dash? It all depends on what you do in life in that dash.’’

A simple wrought-iron gate opens off of East 7th Street in Lexington, leading not so much to a road but a pathway created by the ruts of tire tracks worn into the grass. African Cemetery No. 2 has functioned as a burial place since the early 1820s, and was turned over to the Colored People’s Union Benevolent Society No. 2 in 1869. Some 600 markers fill the 7-acre space, with plaques created to tell the stories of the names on the headstones. One, devoted to African-Americans in the horse industry, includes a list of 24 men who worked as thoroughbred trainers.

In the early years of horse racing, Black trainers were commonplace, though many only learned their trade while tending to the animals of their slave owners. The first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, was won by Aristides, a horse trained by Ansel Williamson, who was emancipated 10 years earlier. But Reconstruction combined with Plessy v. Ferguson drove Black men out of their professions, many unable to get good horses or good rides. Most were forced backward in their career arcs, becoming grooms and exercise riders rather than trainers and jockeys. Demeritte is the first Black trainer with a Derby entrant since Hank Allen in 1989, and only the second since 1951.

He has climbed here the hard way, arriving in the United States from the Bahamas in 1976, buoyed by his late father’s horse knowledge and his grandmother’s positivity. Before Thomas Demeritte was killed while breaking a horse, he taught his son all he knew about horses, but it is really Mayqueen Demeritte who guided her grandson on his impossible dream. The family had no money – Demeritte spins a great tale about gathering cooked rice into a ball, wrapping it in a paper bag and then placing the makeshift ammo into a slingshot to kill a pigeon, which he’d then barbecue on a spit made out of a hanger. But they had each other and they had their faith. That, Mayqueen told the 13 grandchildren she raised, was more than enough to see them through. Her lone requirements were that the boys learn at least two trades, the girls secure an education, and they take care of one another for life. (They listened. Twenty of Demeritte’s family members will come from the Bahamas for the Derby.)

Horses were more of a calling than a trade for Demeritte. So strong was his love for the sport, he gave up being a trainer in the Bahamas to work as a groom in the U.S. Hired by Lexington-based trainer Oscar Dishman, Demeritte joined a circuit that ran from Chicago to Florida and, eventually, to Churchill Downs.

Demeritte, now standing near his Derby entrant, motions over his shoulder to the barns behind him that doubled as his home for two years, admittedly amazed at how far he’s come. In 1981, Demeritte went out on his own as a trainer. Well aware that the color of his skin made him an anomaly, he refused to view it as anything other than an opportunity. “I always say, if I could be linked with the negative side of my race, why don’t I want to link somebody with the positive side?” he says. “It’s not about me. It’s about bringing everyone of my race with me, so they could feel proud.”

He says this as Lowery, his Black assistant trainer, finishes up West Saratoga’s bath. Lowery started working for Demeritte in 2015. His mother had died and, much like Demeritte, he longed for something bigger in horse racing. He left Charles Town track in West Virginia and headed to Kentucky. He started galloping for trainer John Mulvey, but when Mulvey went on to Florida, Lowery opted to stay behind and dig roots in Kentucky. He met Demeritte at the Thoroughbred Center in Lexington, the two bonding quickly over their love for horses and Lowery finding more than a boss in Demeritte. “That’s why I do what I do,” Demeritte says. “I don’t want Donte or my other (assistants) at the barn to have to wait this long to go to the Derby as a trainer.”

Larry Demeritte, right, with his father, Thomas, in the 1970s, preparing a horse for a race. (Matt Stone / USA Today)

By 1996, Demeritte had amassed just 25 wins (for comparison’s sake, Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Derby favorite Fierceness, has won 67 races this year), but he was content. He was in the game, even if it was on the fringes in claiming and maiden races.

That year doctors diagnosed him with bone cancer. The chemo treatments were excruciating and the prognosis grim. He joked with the doctors, arguing if they couldn’t tell him exactly how many rounds of chemo it would take to be cured, he’d decide when enough was enough. But he also admits that the disease occasionally tempered his optimism. His body racked with pain, he recalls going to sleep at night, wondering if he’d wake up the next morning. “I’m so sick and my prayer is, if I don’t wake up on this side, God will wake me on His side,” Demeritte says. He beat the cancer, only to have it return in 2018.

Six years later, he still receives monthly chemo treatments – one as recently as the week before the Derby. He’s also been diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare disease in which protein builds up in the organs; in Demeritte’s case, it’s affecting his heart. It helps that he lives close by. In 2000, he bought a 30-acre farm in Frankfort, about an hour’s drive from Louisville. He’s commuting daily to Churchill, and the chance to rest in his own bed is a blessing. So, too, is the normalcy of his routine. On Sunday, six days before the biggest day of his life, Demeritte went to church and then to Sunday school. He dismisses questions about his stamina, “I don’t have time to sit and worry about it,’’ but those close to him know the toll the illnesses are taking.

“He’s been through some stuff, definitely,” says Harry Veruchi, West Saratoga’s owner. “This horse, it gives him a reason to go to work.”

Veruchi met Demeritte in 2000, when Demeritte picked out a $3,000 horse for the Colorado-based owner. Daring Pegasus grabbed a second-place finish in a race for 2-year-olds on Derby day that year and went on to earn Veruchi $212,518, a rather sweet return on his investment. “We’ve been going ever since,” says Veruchi, who is retired from running a used car dealership.

Veruchi grew up in Littleton, Colo., in a neighborhood that bordered Centennial Race Track. Most of the streets were named for tracks – Monmouth, Pimlico, Tanforan. Veruchi grew up on West Saratoga. As a 10-year-old, he sneaked into Centennial – you were supposed to be 16 – and gamely tried to convince someone to hire him. They shooed the pipsqueak away, though they gave his much older-looking and taller buddy a shot as a groom. Doug Peterson would go on to train Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew after the great horse’s storied 3-year-old run.

Veruchi eventually pivoted to horse ownership, buying his first horse, Melb, in 1982. Like Demeritte, Veruchi largely competed away from the sport’s spotlight, in small stakes races. He and Demeritte have partnered off and on since Daring Pegasus, and the owner has learned to value his trainer’s integrity and trust his gut. “He’s a humble person, a religious person and a great trainer,” Veruchi says. “He really takes good care of this horse. He’s very in the game, making sure everything is right.”

Three years ago, Demeritte made his annual visit to the Keeneland yearling sale. He knows what he likes in a horse, but he also knows what he can’t afford. “I always say, ‘I have Champagne tastes on a beer budget,’ so I buy good horses cheap, but that doesn’t mean I buy cheap horses,” Demeritte says. “I can’t afford the horses that have the papers, so I try to buy the horse that can make the paper.” He’s had good luck. Along with Daring Pegasus, Demeritte has turned other good investments, such as Lady Glamour – purchased for $1,000 and earning $126,000.

But by the last day of the 12-day 2021 sale, Demeritte still hadn’t found a horse, and an anxious Veruchi kept calling, asking if anything had caught Demeritte’s eye.

Finally, as the sale neared its finish with only 20 horses left, Demeritte spied a gray colt. Hip 4146, as he was listed, is the son of Exaggerator, the 2016 Derby runner-up and Preakness winner. The auction started, Demeritte bid and then fretted. “I kept saying, ‘Close the auction, man.’” Demeritte recalls with a laugh. “You selling this horse longer than any other horse come through here.” Demeritte purchased the yearling, which Veruchi named after the street on which he grew up, for $11,000 – or $2,289,000 less than the ownership group paid for Derby contender Sierra Leone.

West Saratoga is 50 to 1. The eternal optimist Demeritte brushes off the oddsmakers’ opinions. As he always tells Veruchi, there is no Plan B. The only plan involves crossing the wire first, and fulfilling Demeritte’s master plan – to inspire. Inspire young people who hold dreams dear even if the path in front of them is bumpy; to inspire young Black men in horse racing by providing a familiar face to emulate; to inspire cancer survivors to ignore prognoses and diagnoses and just live.

Those who love and care for Demeritte, though, would like to tweak the plan. Just this once they’d like it to simply be about Larry Demeritte. “I’m so happy to see he’s made it so far,” Lowery says. “Just being here is his dream come true, but Larry always says, ‘Nobody remembers who finishes second in the Kentucky Derby.’ I want him to have it all. I want him to win the Kentucky Derby.”

The horse is a long shot. But then again, so was Larry Demeritte.

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photo: Matt Stone / USA Today)

Source link


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here