Keith Desormeaux held his half-eaten apple wrapped in a napkin, leaned against a fence under a shade tree to meet with the media about a half-hour after Exaggerator finished his training Friday morning at Belmont Park and summed up the ride of his life that is the 2016 Triple Crown.
"I need to keep reminding myself that this stuff is supposed to be fun," Desormeaux said. "Take it all in. It's pretty cool for a guy like me that's pretty much toiled in the trenches and worked hard to get to this. Walking up, having an entourage is pretty cool. I'm glad my son is getting to experience it; he'll be able to tell some good stories going home."
Desormeaux hopes to go home to California himself with a story of Exaggerator adding Saturday's Belmont Stakes to his victory three weeks ago in the Preakness Stakes. The son of Curlin also finished second in the Kentucky Derby, beaten 2 1/4 lengths to champion Nyquist, before turning the tables on that rival in Baltimore.
Exaggerator will face a dozen foes in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, no Nyquist but seven who finished behind him in either the Derby or the Preakness. The Belmont is the longest of the three American classics and it's the end of the road for the 3-year-olds of 2016, at least for now.
Desormeaux, who will give his younger brother and Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux a leg up in the Belmont, is enjoying the ride the best he can. He's relaxed for the most part, quite a contrast from him snapping at a few umbrella-toting onlookers at his barn at Churchill Downs on a rainy morning the week before the Kentucky Derby.
That blip aside, he seemed to enjoy the Derby experience, savoring the gallant run of Exaggerator and quickly giving credit to Nyquist for running his record to 8-for-8. And he enjoyed the Preakness - winning certainly playing a big role in that - keeping loose at the stakes barn before the race and enjoying a cold beer on a rainy dark night while he watched Exaggerator cool out with a few turns of the shedrow.
"I tell myself to try and enjoy it. I try the best I can. I'm pretty intense," Desormeaux said Friday after his girlfriend and assistant Julie Clark walked Exaggerator and exercise rider Peedy Landry back through the barn area. "I'm focused on what these owners pay me a lot of money to do and that's watch their horses, look for clues and do what I can to get the most out of each and every one. That's why I say I'm pretty intense ... and it probably ratcheted itself up a notch or two for the Triple Crown. Come Sunday I'll be a much more mellow Desormeaux."
Desormeaux said his nerves would largely be in check between now and post time of the Belmont, which is set for 6:37 p.m. Saturday. A big reason why is Exaggerator himself, who has maintained his steady demeanor during his two-week stay in New York.
Exaggerator trained after the break Friday morning. He went to the track at about 8:45 a.m., the same time as Preakness runner-up and fellow Belmont entrant Cherry Wine and after most of the other contenders for Saturday's race. He galloped with purpose, but not overly aggressive, and made a usual walk through the paddock. Several other horses were in the paddock at the same time and Exaggerator didn't turn a hair when some of the others acted up a bit.
"That's about as strong as I've seen him in Petey's hands," Desormeaux said of his gallop. "I think a lot of that had to do with the weather; also ... there was a set of workers behind him that got him pumped up. The cool thing about Exaggerator is he can control his emotions and as soon as those workers went by and Peedy asked him to settle he pulled up pretty good. I couldn't ask for a better gallop.
"What's cool for me is there are no issues with this horse. His energy is there, color is good ... as far my preparation and the expectations of what we've done through the horse, I really can't ask my horse to be doing any better. He doesn't seem to be having or showing the rigors of three top races in five weeks. That's usually the NO. 1 concern, right? He looks like he's thriving off it so that's pretty cool."
Exaggerator is the 9/5 morning-line favorite and will attempt to join 18 others as Preakness-Belmont winners. Four of the last five Preakness-Belmont winners - Risen Star, Hansel, Point Given and Afleet Alex - earned the 3-year-old male championship. The Belmont would give Exaggerator three Grade 1 wins this season, he also won the Santa Anita Derby in early April, and he would most likely be the pro tem divisional leader with a victory.
A victory by any of the other 12 would give the Triple Crown three different winners for the first time since 2013.
The Todd Pletcher-trained Stradivari and Destin are the next two shortest prices on the morning line, while Preakness runner-up Cherry Wine, Arkansas Derby winner Creator and Southwest winner Suddenbreakingnews are also generating buzz. Japan's Lani, a Kentucky-bred son of Lani, will join Exaggerator as the only two 3-year-olds to contest all three jewels of the Triple Crown. He finished ninth in the Derby and fifth in the Preakness, making up 22 lengths in the process.
The Belmont field also includes two-time Grade 1 winner Brody's Cause, Peter Pan runner-up Governor Malibu, maiden winners Gettysburg, Seeking The Soul and Forever d'Oro and the maiden Trojan Nation.