Veteran trainer Larry Demeritte stayed vigilant through the very end of last year's Keeneland September Sale, taking a close look at every yearling going through the ring during the final session. With less than 20 hips to go, when most buyers were long gone and many consignments were already packed up, he raised his hand on Hip 4146. Coming in with a winning bid of $11,000 for the son of Exaggerator, Demeritte signed the ticket for his longtime client Harry Veruchi.
“I stay at the sale and look at every horse that goes through the ring because I only have so much money that I can spend,” Demeritte explained. “There was not much not to like about this horse. When you look at him he's a well-balanced horse, not too much defect to him at all. When I saw him I said, 'Well, if he has the heart to go with everything else he's got going for him, he could be a nice one.'”
The colt was named West Saratoga–not after the racing town in upstate New York, but for the street in Colorado that Veruchi grew up on–and it soon became apparent that the young grey had as much potential as Demeritte had initially hoped. With the help of his longtime exercise rider and mentee Dante, Demeritte broke West Saratoga at his base at the Thoroughbred Center off Paris Pike.
“From day one I told Dante that this guy was smart,” Demeritte recalled. “That's what you like to see in a good racehorse is that intelligence. Sometimes you get on one and they get timid around other horses, but he always wanted to be the leader of the pack.”
Demeritte was undeterred when West Saratoga drew post 1 in three of his first four starts this year and still had yet to find the winner's circle. He finally got the trip he was looking for on Aug. 5 going a mile at Ellis Park when he claimed the lead early and stayed there, defeating next-out winner Generous Tipper (Street Sense).
From there it was on to the GIII Iroquois S., where this time the juvenile came from off the pace to draw clear in the stretch, besting favored Risk It (Gun Runner) by just under two lengths.
“All week long we were saying that they had to run really well to beat this horse because he come out of the race he won so good and was ready to move forward,” Demeritte said. “We had all the confidence in the world. A lot of times–and I think most trainers do this–we size up the horses in the paddock and see how they act. He was so much more mature and he showed a lot of class about him.”
While it was a monumental victory in Demeritte's career, this wasn't his first graded stakes win. He proudly points out how his old trainee Memorial Maniac (Lear Fan) holds a track record at Arlington Park from his win in the 2010 GIII Stars and Stripes Turf S. Even so, the Iroquois score might be the horseman's most notable career win as West Saratoga became the first point earner on the road to the 2024 GI Kentucky Derby.
This Saturday, West Saratoga returns to the starting gate for the GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity. With a nine-horse field that features 'TDN Rising Star' Locked (Gun Runner) and GI Hopeful S. runner-up Timberlake (Into Mischief), West Saratoga drew post 5.
Despite 20-1 morning line odds, West Saratoga's conditioner could not be more confident as he makes a rare Grade I race appearance at his home track.
“I love my horse a lot,” Demeritte said. “I wouldn't trade him for any horse in the race. There's a horse [Timberlake] in there that beat him before and that horse could be moving forward also. We're not worrying about who else is there. Once we take our horse into the race, if we do the best we can do at this stage of the game–win, lose or draw–I could handle it.”
“I like training this horse because he doesn't have too many bad days,” he continued. “When we breeze him in the mornings, he's excited and feels good about himself. He eats a lot and that's what you like to see because when a horse is getting to their peak they back off the tub a little bit, so he's showing that he still has some room for improvement.”
Demeritte learned many tricks of the training trade from his father, who was a trainer in the Bahamas. From a young age, Demeritte showed a passion for horses and he soon followed in his father's footsteps. He was a leading trainer in the Bahamas for two years before moving to the U.S. with the goal of someday making it to the GI Kentucky Derby.
Decades after saddling his first starter here and with a stable of less than a dozen horses, Demeritte might just be on his way to overcoming his long odds.
“I still might not get there because it's a long way off, but I'm a praying kind of person and the Lord controls our footsteps so whatever He blesses me with, I'm comfortable with my career in the horse game,” he explained. “Hopefully I'll be blessed enough to go on to the Derby.”
Demeritte has had to overcome more than his share of challenges. Over 20 years ago he was diagnosed with cancer and was given five years to live. Six years ago, he again was diagnosed with cancer in the form of multiple myeloma and given six months to live.
“I'm still here,” he said with a wide grin. “I'm just going day by day, trying to do what God asks me to do. Sometimes you go through hardships. I remember I would get so frustrated because I don't see people have the love for the horses like I have. I never get bored, even for as long as I've been in the game, so I try to encourage young people in the game to love it.”
The idea of earning a Grade I at Keeneland, a track that has been like his second home for decades, brings yet another bright smile to Demeritte's face.
“It would mean so, so much, you know? But it's not the end of the world. You know what's more important to me? I thought it was so cool after I won the Iroquois, I had people like Pat Day, Jacinto Vasquez and Jean Cruguet call me. These guys rode for me over the years and I think a lot of them. Besides, I have so many friends that it's like I'm doing it for a whole group of people, not just me. They were so happy for me and that made it all worth the while.”