At the old Agua Caliente racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico, Matt Bryan of Flower Mound felt the pull, initial but irresistible, an incipient connection with horses and racing. He was just 10, on a family vacation, when for the first time he saw horses race.
Ronny Ortowski of Fort Worth grew up on a ranch and so always had an interest in horses; he even worked on a horse farm in Louisiana in the 1970s, after a stint in the Army.
Still, who could ever have imagined, as Bryan put it, that these “good ol’ boys from Texas” would be here, in this position, with one of the favorites for the 142nd Kentucky Derby.
In a partnership that includes their families, Bryan and Ortowski own Exaggerator. And three weeks ago, with the unmistakable panache of a Derby contender, Exaggerator delivered what was arguably the best performance this season by a 3-year-old.
More than 10 lengths back, with five horses in front of him as he entered the second turn at Santa Anita, he blew by them “like they were tied to the rail,” as announcer Michael Wrona described it. Splashing down the stretch through the slop, Exaggerator quickly left any threat far behind and won the prestigious Santa Anita Derby by more than six lengths, with jockey Kent Desormeaux taking the handsome colt in hand in the final yards.
And so here they are, these “good ol’ boys from Texas,” on the big stage with one of the stars for one of sport’s most famous dramas. Many horsemen go a lifetime without getting close to a Kentucky Derby, except in their dreams. Bryan and Ortowski have gotten here swiftly, but their arrival hasn’t become one of those annoying sports narratives of triumphalism.
For their success, they credit hard work, attention to detail, a heaping scoop of good luck and the Desormeaux brothers, jockey Kent and trainer Keith.
Bryan’s equipment company has offices in Grand Prairie, and not far from there, at Lone Star Park in April of 2012, he met Keith Desormeaux for the first time during the Fasig-Tipton auction of 2-year-olds. Attending the sale on a reconnaissance mission, Bryan didn’t buy anything, but simply observed. And he saw enough, he said, to decide that he wanted to get involved, with Desormeaux as his trainer.
Success came almost immediately. In Florida, a few weeks after their meeting at Lone Star, on the advice of his trainer, Bryan purchased his first racehorse, a 2-year-old named Ive Struck A Nerve, for $82,000. And 10 months after that, the colt won the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, pushing his earnings beyond $300,000.
In the fall, they bought a yearling filly by Artie Schiller for $20,000; a year later, Miss Machiavelli won the Pike Pace Dancer Stakes at Golden Gate Fields. In 2013, they bought a yearling filly by Curlin for $17,000; five months later La Grange won the Cinderella Stakes at Los Alamitos and ran second in the Sorrento Stakes at Del Mar.
Ortowski, a longtime friend and business associate, joined the deal in 2014, his family represented in the partnership as the Rocker O Ranch, with Bryan and his family as Big Chief Racing. And the Rocker O-Big Chief partnership has been golden, starting with their first purchase of yearlings during the fall sale at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.
The prospect the partnership coveted, on Keith Desormeaux’s resounding recommendation, was hip number 1473, a son of Curlin who wouldn’t pass through the ring until later in the sale, which encompassed 13 sessions over two weeks. Curlin wasn’t especially popular with buyers at the time, and the more aggressive and affluent buyers typically focused on the “premier book” of 762 yearlings, or the first four days. And so Desormeaux waited patiently and hopefully.
“When he called to tell us we got him,” Bryan explained, referring to Desormeaux and the prospect, “he left a voice message saying, ‘This is the one; this is the Derby horse.’ ”
And he is indeed. For $110,000 the partners purchased the son of Curlin and named him Exaggerator. Instantly he became the most expensive horse the partners ever bought, but, as it turned out, he also took them into rarefied air, winning the Saratoga Special and the Delta Jackpot, in addition to the Santa Anita Derby, and earning more than $1.6 million.
“I still remember making that phone call,” Desormeaux said. “I was so ecstatic I could hardly talk. [Exaggerator] was just an astounding individual.
He checked all the boxes for me. I thought we were going to have to go to $200,000 or even $300,000 for him.”
Even later in the sale, for just $5,000, the partners bought a son of Birdstone they named Swipe. A minor breathing problem will keep him out of the Derby, but he could be on his way to becoming one of the sport’s great bargains. After winning last year’s Summer Juvenile Championship at Los Alamitos, he ran second behind Nyquist, the eventual champion, in four consecutive stakes, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Swipe has earned $608,930 and will return to competition this summer, having had throat surgery.
“I’m sure it’s not like heaven, but it’s close,” Ortowski said about their success. And, of course, that success could soon become even more heavenly. Exaggerator has arrived at Churchill Downs from California.
“He’s lengthening, and he’s actually putting on weight between races,” Desormeaux said about the improvement he has seen in the colt over the past two months. “Now we just have to make the transition as uneventful as possible. We’ll stay with the routine, keep everything as simple as possible. And try to enjoy it. This is what we work for.”
Prominently displayed in his Grand Prairie office, there’s a treasure given to him by a friend, a photograph Bryan put up many years ago of Big Brown winning the 2008 Kentucky Derby. It’s signed by Big Brown’s jockey, Kent Desormeaux.
“Funny the way it’s all worked out, how the bits and pieces have all come together,” Bryan said, staring at the photograph and smiling at the coincidence. Or maybe he smiled because it hardly seemed coincidental at all that the Desormeaux brothers are teamed up with these “good ol’ boys from Texas.”
142nd Kentucky Derby
5:34 p.m., Saturday, KXAS/5