Kentucky Derby

Larry Demeritte joins rare company as Black trainer to saddle a horse for the Kentucky Derby

Demeritte is just the second Black trainer for a Derby horse since 1951

NBCUniversal Media, LLC

If Larry Demeritte is looking for a positive sign heading into his first Kentucky Derby as a trainer, it's right where his horse is assigned.

Long-shot West Saratoga is staying in Barn 42 at Churchill Downs, the same location where Seattle Slew was before he won the 1977 Derby and went on to sweep the Triple Crown. It was the first Derby that Demeritte attended.

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Now, he is the second Black trainer since 1951 to be saddling a horse in the big race, which has its 150th running on Saturday. The other, Hank Allen, finished sixth with Northern Wolf in 1989.

Black trainers dominated the Derby’s early years, winning seven of the first 17 from 1875-1891.

“We're so grateful to be here and enjoying every single minute,” Demeritte said.

Everything is meaningful to the 74-year-old from the Bahamas since he was diagnosed with cancer in 1996 and underwent chemotherapy. His father was a trainer in the islands and Dermeritte still carries the accent of his home country, where he was leading trainer for two years.

“My motto is, `I don't buy cheap horses. I buy good horses cheap,'” he said, smiling.

The costliest horse in the 20-horse Derby field is morning-line second choice Sierra Leone, purchased for $2.3 million. Purchased for just $11,000, West Saratoga is the pride of Demeritte's 11-horse stable at The Thoroughbred Center in nearby Lexington. The colt has earned $460,140.

“He's getting better with every start,” he said. “I've been around a lot of good horses and this horse really matches up to a lot of them.”

It's the first Derby for West Saratoga owner Harry Veruchi.

“I bought my first horse in 1982, and two weeks later he won at Centennial Race Track in Littleton, Colorado,” Veruchi said. “I thought, this is easy. And now, to be here, who would have thought it? I don’t know anybody who has been in the Kentucky Derby or even anybody who has won a graded stake.”

West Saratoga is named for the street in Littleton where Veruchi grew up. It’s located six blocks from the Centennial track, which closed in 1983.

The only one with any Derby experience in their group is jockey Jesus Castanon. He finished fourth aboard Shackleford in 2011. They set the pace and led at the eighth pole only to be overtaken by eventual winner Animal Kingdom.

“I thought I was going to win it,” Castanon said. “In my mind, I was going crazy.”

Demeritte has run horses on the Derby undercard in past years.

“I've been practicing,” he said with a smile. “I used to pray to get to the Derby. I feel like I am blessed with this horse.”

Demeritte has his eyes on the sky for Saturday, when the forecast calls for a 43% chance of rain. The gray colt has never run on a wet track, but his sire did. Exaggerator was runner-up in the 2016 Derby and went on to win the Preakness and the Haskell. Both of those races were run on sloppy tracks.

"This is truly amazing how we got to this position with this horse,” Demeritte said. “I’m hopeful people will see our story and become interested in this sport because this horse is proving anyone with a dream can make it to the Derby stage.”

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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