Keith Desormeaux, the trainer, had to wonder what it would take to defeat Nyquist. The Louisiana native’s big horse, Exaggerator, had attempted to beat his rival four times, all for naught. And even though Exaggerator kept getting closer to beating the undefeated Nyquist – placing 5th, 4th, 2nd, 2nd respectively – the son of Curlin trotted into the Preakness Stakes at the Pimlico race course empty-handed in that regard.
Keith Desormeaux’s brother Kent Desormeaux, the jockey, has been aboard Exaggerator for all of his races – from Exaggerator’s debut (a field shared with Nyquist), to his victory in the Delta Downs Jackpot, and onto his biggest victory – the Santa Anita Derby. Kent Desormeaux already had two Preakness Stakes victories to his name – in 1998 with Real Quiet, and 2008 with Big Brown. Until American Pharoah won the Triple Crown last year, it was Desormeaux and Real Quiet who were the closest to stamping their names into the history books, losing the Triple Crown by four inches.
But still – how do you defeat the undefeated?
My lady Melanie and I always walk to the French Quarter from Uptown. It’s a fair walk, and we love to look at the architecture, make fun of the potholes and meet the good folks in the neighborhood. We have a route we like to take – we’ll always hit the Prytania Bar to talk with Caroline and get our first go-cup, which gets us to the Avenue Pub for another go-cup. We told everyone on our route that day we were headed to the Quarter to watch the Preakness, as if we were somehow ambassadors from another city, another time.
I kept thinking about Pimlico and the Quarter as we walked down St. Charles Avenue. They both are venerable institutions, beloved by some locals and many tourists. Folks question and debate what can be done to help the troubled locales. They both have peculiar smells.
We ambled into the Erin Rose, our favorite bar in the Quarter. We often pretend to, “check out the Quarter,” but Saturday we bee-lined it to our preferred watering hole. The crowd has the perfect mix of locals outnumbering tourists, and the jukebox is stacked with Prince tracks. Murf, our favorite bartender at the Erin Rose, wasn’t working behind the bar, but was definitely working on a good time.
I always order PBR’s at the Erin Rose because – one, I love it. And two, if you guess the card under the cap, you get the PBR for free. It’s gambling with a boozy immediacy. Hashtag Mark loves that. We ordered, the bartender looked, and, as always, I said –
Ace of Spades.
And I was wrong, but what can you do? Anyway, we grabbed our beers and looked up to find both TV’s playing…women’s softball. Which is all fine and well, but it was the Preakness, dammit, and even though I neglected making it to the Fair Grounds to get my bet in, I wasn’t missing the second leg of the yearly trilogy called the Triple Crown. Honestly, would you skip, “The Empire Strikes Back,” and think you had really seen enough of the original Star Wars?
Anyway, the bartender whose name I always forget, so I just call him, “the tall one without the beard,” was more than happy to throw on the race. He then donned that look that I have seen so many times before. With his inquisitive gaze, I could hear him thinking, “so this is a horse person.” To which, I guess I am, and I wouldn’t argue that it does share many similarities with a secret society – it’s own language, fantastical names with legends to match, and a casual brutality.
My fresh-faced bartender admitted that all he really knew about horse racing came from that poet laureate of the racetrack, Charles Bukowski. The bartender went on to tell us that after reading a few Bukowski novels he went out and, “tried it,” but could never pick a winning horse. We laughed, and I wanted to tell him it took a lot of patience, knowledge and skill but just ended up saying, “sometimes you just get lucky, I guess.” Which is also true – for that’s why a gambler shows up on a Tuesday afternoon to bet on claimers who have never broken their maiden. Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes it’s as if fate is pushing you on, cheering your name.
In a bold move, Kent Desormeaux swept Exaggerator to the outside of Nyquist and Uncle Lino coming around the last turn, passed the two leaders, and angled back inside to the rail, crossing the face and kicking up some mud into the face of the undefeated Nyquist, and roared down the inside lane of the sloppy Pimlico track. Kent Desormeaux looked back to keep an eye on a fading Nyquist, but Exaggerator would not look back, and the son of Curlin kept his heels to the field winning the Preakness by 3 ½ lengths.
I want to tell you the bar erupted, and its denizens cheered, cried, and saluted their Cajun brethren, but that would be a lie. Hell, some of the patrons didn’t even know the race was on, as the TV’s volume was turned down, and the jukebox was turned up. But, Melanie and I cheered and a family behind us was all smiles. So, like the modern-day animals that we are, we looked to our smartphones and sent and received dispatches from Kentucky, Maryland and beyond. The jukebox was still bumping, we kept saying Ace of Spades, and Murf the off-duty bartender danced on.
Melanie received an email from New Orleans Magazine and Louisiana Life Magazine editor in chief Errol Laborde – “It’s a great Louisiana story!”
A great Louisiana story, indeed. And Kentucky story, and Maryland story, a French Quarter story, and now possibly a New York story, as the Desormeaux brothers begin preparations for the Belmont Stakes – “The Test of the Champion.”
Later, as we sat in the streetcar rolling back Uptown, I stuck my head out the window to feel my hair being pushed back by the wind, by speed. I thought of Cajun country celebrations, Desormeaux brothers and the meaning of family pride. I looked up through the long arms of Oak trees, above those soaring mansion rooftops, and spotted the stars that dappled a Louisiana night.
And like a fine wine with a steak dinner, every game should be accompanied by a beverage and song.
Drink Pairing: The Preakness Stakes, “Black-Eyed Susan”
Playlist Recommendation: The Cajun Playboys – “Jambalaya”
Around The Way
You know I love college baseball, and we’re entering crunch time as the conference playoffs are upon us, and Louisiana baseball is hot. Please follow the tournament madness over at @fullsportNOLA.
The Tulane Green Wave held off a late season charge by the East Carolina Pirates to win the American Athletic Conference for their first league title since 2005. No matter what happens in the conference tournament, Tulane will be in the NCAA regionals for their second straight year, but they might as well win the tournament too, right? The No. 14 Green Wave plays Central Florida tonight at 6 p.m.
The LSU Tigers didn’t win the SEC conference, but ended the season with a series victory over the Florida Gators. To show you how nasty the SEC is, LSU enters the tournament ranked No. 8 in the nation by D1Baseball.com, but are the fifth-seed in the SEC tournament. The Tigers will have to win an elimination game against Tennessee (tonight, 8 p.m.) to advance to the round-robin portion of tournament.
It’s weird to feel optimistic entering a tournament on a five-game losing streak, but the UNO Privateers have to feel good about facing the Southeastern Louisiana University Lions – a team they just beat in a series last weekend. The Privateers and Lions play Wednesday at Noon in the Southland Conference tournament.