Matt Bryan recalls traveling with his wife and daughters a few years back, collectively weeping over a dream supposedly gone awry.
Barely 12 months after Bryan and trainer Keith Desormeaux bought their first horse together, that horse — the aptly named Ive Struck a Nerve — won the 2013 Grade II Risen Star Stakes to put himself on that year’s Kentucky Derby trail.
It was an invaluable moment for Bryan, one that further fueled the Texas businessman’s racing passion and validated his faith in the horseman he had instant bond with upon meeting. What followed when Ive Struck a Nerve suffered a career-ending sesamoid fracture weeks later was a teachable moment that Bryan has come to appreciate.
“I look back and the highs and lows and ... when Ive Struck a Nerve cracked a sesamoid, I can tell you my wife and my daughters and I, we were driving up for spring break and all four of us are crying,” said Bryan, who campaigns under the nom de course Big Chief Racing. “But, that being said, I would not have respected the game if I would have gotten there that quick. So it’s a blessing.”
Bryan’s perspective is evident when he speaks now of the horse who is reaching peaks beyond what most owners — let alone newcomers to the game — could reasonably expect. Any conversation about Exaggerator, the Preakness and Haskell Stakes winner who is the morning-line favorite for Saturday’s Grade I, $1.25 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga, is conveyed with a hearty tone of gratitude.
Forgive Bryan if he still gets emotional talking about the company he and his partners keep these days. It was just a handful of years ago that the CEO of Grand Prairie-based M.G. Bryan Equipment Co. was an admitted novice owner who “didn’t even know how the purse structure was distributed,” so the fact he now co-owns a potential Eclipse Award contender is something Bryan views as a privilege.
To go from fan to impactful, industry participant is not impossible, but it’s not supposed to happen at the rate of speed Bryan has traveled. A lifelong racing enthusiast, Byran dipped his toe into Thoroughbred ownership as part of the Texas-based partnership Don’t Tell My Wife Stables co-managed by his friend Kirk Godby, and it was through Godby that Bryan first met Desormeaux at the Fasig-Tipton Texas 2-year-old sale in 2012.
Where Bryan was fascinated with Desormeaux’s horsemanship and intuitive ability to spot quality, the Louisiana-based conditioner was equally impressed with his new friend’s passion for a sport that doesn’t suffer fools kindly. Since first joining forces at the 2012 April OBS 2-year-olds in training sale, Bryan and Desormeaux have channeled their shared mindset into joint success in campaigning such standouts as graded stakes winners Crucero and Decked Out and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Swipe, in addition to the colt who can claim unabashed status as the leader of the 3-year-old male division with a Travers triumph.
“I met Keith at the Texas sale and when I met him, I called Kirk immediately afterward and I said … I’m leaving tomorrow but I need you to tell him that I’m going to give him $100,000 to go to the OBS sale. And he spent $82,000 on Ive Struck a Nerve,” said Bryan, who campaigns Exaggerator along with longtime friend Ronnie Ortowski, Desormeaux and Sol Kumin’s Head of Plains Partners. “And then later on, Keith and I started talking more regularly and I said, ‘Let’s think about going to California’ that year and we ran out there a string of maybe five horses. Now I think he has a string of 30-40 horses East Coast and West Coast.
“It’s been an exciting ride and our friendship has grown and … I was fortunate enough to just find him and believe in him. And I knew he was a great horseman, that’s really the truth. I was blessed to find him and he was blessed to find me I guess, in both directions.”
Bryan laughs when recalling the breathless message Desormeaux left on his phone after he bought a well-balanced son of Curlin for $110,000 on their behalf at the 2014 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. What knocks the wind out of both is the fact that Exaggerator has made Desormeaux look like a prophet in declaring the dark bay colt a star before he ever had saddle on his back.
Though he had already notched head-turning wins in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby and Preakness Stakes — the latter of which handed Kentucky Derby hero, Nyquist, his first career loss — it was Exaggerator’s triumph in the Haskell Invitational on July 31 that embodied a group of owners having enough faith in themselves and their horse to make an astute call.
After initially being pointed to the Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga one day earlier, Desormeaux nixed that when he was unsatisfied with how Exaggerator was training at Saratoga and then shocked many when it was announced his charge would reroute to the seemingly saltier Haskell where he would knock heads with Nyquist and Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Gun Runner.
There was method to that madness, however, as the 30,587 in attendance at Monmouth Park witnessed. Running over a sloppy track he prefers and getting the pace setup that would not have materialized had he gone to the Jim Dandy, Exaggerator unleashed a brilliant last-to-first kick to hit the wire 1 1/2-lengths in front as Nyquist faded to fourth.
“We kind of went, if we’re going to really try to be the best 3-year-old, how do we do this? And it really came down to saying we’re going to run against American Freedom and Nyquist and we’ll be third choice and go out there,” Bryan said of the Haskell. “I know a lot of people accused us of watching the weather. Do we care if it rains? No. But we’re not pointing to every race saying ‘Where is it going to rain?’ But it was very exciting for us and … hopefully he’ll relax and kick into high gear (in the Travers) like he usually does.”
Bryan stresses that the business of Thoroughbred ownership is just that for him and his partners, “because we don’t have the extra capital to just do this as a hobby.” He maintains about 22-24 horses in training currently with Desormeaux and purchases 10-15 yearlings a season.
And if he can’t help but repeatedly express gratitude to what Desormeaux and his team have helped bring to his world, it’s because Bryan has learned in a short time how fortunate his experience has been.
“It’s met every expectation you could ever dream of,” Bryan said. “There are all these great horses right now — Frosted, Nyquist, Beholder, California Chrome. It’s just extremely exciting to be in that class, to be in that group of horses and even be talked about. I truly take it as an honor.”
When: 5:48 p.m.
Where: Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Purse: $1.250 million (Grade I)
Distance: 1 1/4 miles
Favorite: Exaggerator (3-1)
Travers Stakes field
1 Arrogate 10-1
2 American Freedom 6-1
3 My Man Sam 20-1
4 Governor Malibu 12-1
5 Forever d’Oro 30-1
6 Anaximandros 15-1
7 Exaggerator 3-1
8 Destin 10-1
9 Gift Box 12-1
10 Connect 4-1
11 Majesto 30-1
12 Creator 15-1
13 Laoban 15-1
14 Gun Runner 20-1