Ky. Derby prep: West Saratoga closes on hot pace, wins Iroquois

Ky. Derby prep: West Saratoga closes on hot pace, wins Iroquois
Photo: Carson Blevins / Eclipse & Ron Flatter

Louisville, Ky. 

Bahamas native Larry Demeritte is part of the backbone of the racing industry. A hard-working trainer who does not get a lot of attention, because he gets horses ready to sell as much as he does to race.

Occasionally, though, he has one come through in a big spot. Like Saturday.

“We’ve had some good horses in the past,” Demeritte said, “but none like this one.”

This one was West Saratoga. From mid-pack in an eight-horse field, the 12-1 long shot closed on a torrid, early pace, took a head of steam five wide into the homestretch and ran on to a 1 3/4-length victory Saturday in the Grade 3, $300,000 Iroquois Stakes, the first points prep for Kentucky Derby 2024.

Click here for Churchill Downs entries and results.

Now 6: 2-3-0 since he began racing in April, West Saratoga added $180,315 in earnings to bring his total to $276,815. To think this 3-year-old son of Exaggerator cost owner Harry Veruchi only $11,000 last September when Demeritte spotted him as hip 4146 at the Keeneland yearling sale.

“Not so much bargain basement,” Demeritte said. “My motto is I buy a good horse cheap. I don’t buy cheap horses.”

West Saratoga needed five races to break his maiden, doing so last month going a mile in gate-to-wire fashion at Ellis Park. On Saturday he was six lengths behind at the midway point of this one-turn mile before jockey Rafael Bejarano asked for what proved to be a second consecutive winning move.

“I knew there was going to be a lot of speed this time,” Bejarano said. “I just tried to play it by ear and get him comfortable right behind with the speed and go from there. My horse felt really comfortable in that position, so I was really loaded.”

Patriot Spirit (3-1), a debut winner at Colonial Downs, ran off with the early lead, uncorking early fractions of 22.37 and 44.63 seconds before slowing into a six-furlong time of 1:10.14 on the fast, main track. At that point, post-time favorite Risk It (6-5) had moved within 2 1/2 lengths into second. West Saratoga was another length back in third and carrying a head of steam.

“By the three-eighths I knew I had a lot of horse left,” Bejarano said. “I was hoping he was going to keep going, because I knew they were going to come back.”

That they did. West Saratoga moved into the lead with a furlong to go and never looked back. Risk It, who made a winning debut at Saratoga last month to earn a 79 Beyer Speed Figure, according to Daily Racing Form, finished a game second. He was a neck better than Liberal Arts (9-1) in third.

“(The pace) just stretched the race out considerably,” Risk It’s trainer Steve Asmussen said. “It took him a bit to get him to settle off of that, but with only his second race, it was fine.”

West Saratoga had a winning time of 1:37.28. He paid $26.96, $8.24 and $5.22; Risk It $3.24 and $2.88; and Liberal Arts $5.44. Seize the Grey (9-2), Edified (11-1), Patriot Spirit, Union Roll (8-1) and Market Street (24-1) finished fourth through eighth in that order.

It will take some research to quantify the historical context of what happened Saturday, but Demeritte has the rare distinction of being a Black trainer who won a Kentucky Derby points prep.

“I come from the Bahamas,” he said when he was asked about that Saturday. “We don’t have I would say the racist issues like here, and I accept whatever deal I am dealt. I’m thankful for all the clients I have had through the years. Not only just now in the present but all those who have made this journey possible. I thank them a lot.”

Based at The Thoroughbred Center in Lexington, Ky., with a stable of nine horses, Demeritte came to America 47 years ago. His previous biggest win came with Memorial Maniac in the 2010 Stars and Stripes Turf Stakes (G3) at Arlington Park.

“Life is like bumps in the road,” he said. “Sometimes you hit some bumps, and sometimes it smooths out for you. That happened today for us, and I’m grateful.

“It’s so cool, because I always said when I came here, I was the only farm manager who was Black in Kentucky. I like upsetting the cart, because that’s this game. You never know who could come up with a good horse, but you have to keep at it. You’ve got to keep working, so I am really excited for that.”

Demeritte said he might start West Saratoga during the fall meet at Keeneland, conceivably in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) on Oct. 7, or train up to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 3 at Santa Anita.

“Keeneland is my home,” Demeritte said. “I would really love to start him at Keeneland.”

Top Stories

New York Cody’s Wish returned to his winning ways...
Five weeks out from the $6 million Breeders’ Cup C...
Ace Impact never had raced 1 1/2 miles before, but...
Breaking like a shot on wet-fast track, Reddam Rac...
Kentucky Derby 2023 winner Mage worked Sunday morn...