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Cancer hasn’t kept horse trainer from Kentucky Derby dreaming

By Jody Demling

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    LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (WLKY) — Larry Demeritte was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1996 and told he had five years to live. Demeritte kept training horses, stayed faithful and beat those odds.

And then in 2018, Demeritte had his second bout with cancer and was told he had six months to live. Again, Demeritte overcame the odds and kept living his life on the backside of horse tracks.

“I always say doctors can’t count,” Demeritte said with a laugh.

Now, the 74-year-old Demeritte is still battling cancer. He had a round of chemotherapy last week and says he also has amyloidosis, which is a rare disease that occurs when a protein builds up in organs.

But it’s not going to slow down Demeritte.

A native of the Bahamas, who moved to the United States in 1976 and lives in Midway, Kentucky, has beaten the odds once again. He purchased West Saratoga for $11,000 at the 2022 Keeneland September Yearling Sale and has the son of Exaggerator in the field for next Saturday’s 150th Kentucky Derby.

“I believe in faith and I believe in destiny,” Demeritte said on Saturday morning from the backside at Churchill Downs.

West Saratoga will be a long shot in the Derby field after finishing second in the Jeff Ruby Stakes at Turfway Park in his final Derby prep race. He has two wins, five seconds and a third in 10 career starts.

The gray roan colt does have a win at Churchill, capturing the Iroquois Stakes back in September.

“I said this early on, I told the boys in the barn, ‘This is the big horse’,” Demeritte said. “This horse has gears, and I could just tell he had talent, not that I thought we would be in the Kentucky Derby … But I loved the route we took with him, thinking he could compete with the best. I feel like when the right day comes with the big boys that he’ll be ready for it.”

For Demeritte, he’s just elated to still be around to watch one of his horses in the Derby.

“Lucky to be here,” he said with a smile.

It’s been a long journey. Demeritte was born in a racing family. His father, Thomas, was a leading trainer in the Bahamas. But Demeritte said his father never pushed him or his six brothers into horse racing.

Demeritte remembers watching Secretariat win the 1973 Derby and thinking, “I want to go to the U.S.” and train. He came to the U.S. in 1976 as a groom for trainer Oscar Dishman.

“I gave up a lot to come here,” he said. “At 19, I was training 25 head of horses in the Bahamas. I was leading trader for two years. I came here to be a groom. I said, ‘I have to win the ultimate Derby’.”

Going out on his own in 1981, Demeritte picked up his first win in 1984. According to Equibase, Demeritte has 180 career wins and $4.9 million in earnings out of 2,065 career starts.

“I may be a rookie in the Kentucky Derby but I have experience for preparing for the big-time races,” he said.

And he also has experience in overcoming the long odds.

Demeritte, who drove his pickup truck from Midway to Churchill on Friday, with West Saratoga in a horse trailer on the back, knows he’s lucky to still be alive. He still has chemo every month.

“I lost a lot of friends to cancer,” Demeritte said. “I lost a really close friend and I told him, ‘People pray for you to be healed. I don’t pray for you to be healed, I pray for you that God isn’t through with you yet. Because if he’s not through with you he’s not going to call you. I lost him. I am blessed.”

“I feel like I am on a mission. The Kentucky Derby is great but I feel like it’s deeper than that,” Demeritte said. “If I can encourage people with cancer — I don’t mind speaking about it — if I can help one person feel better about their journey that’s what I want to do. I have faith and I believe that I am here for a purpose.”

Assistant trainer Donte Lowery has been with Demeritte for nine years and wants to someday train on his own. Lowery said he’s learned so much from Demeritte about horses and also about life.

“He inspires me in a big way,” Lowery said. “My plans are in the future to hopefully, one day be a trainer, and Larry has taught me a lot. He teaches me every day … He’s always positive. It’s always good, he’s always smiling and happy.

“You can’t ask for someone better to work for seven days a week. He’s great.”

Lowery admitted that there have been times when he’s struggled emotionally with Demeritte battling his illness.

“It’s hard for me to even look at him like that,” Lowery said. “My mother passed away from cancer. But for him, I try to tell him sometimes to relax himself. I am always telling him to go home and get some rest, I’ll tell him I’ll drive him home. It’s sometimes tough for him and it’s hard for me to look at him.

“But I think (West Saratoga) is what keeps him going every day, knowing he’s got this big one here. He’s got to come and see him and be with him here every day. He really does keep him going.”

Demeritte will be the first African-American trainer in the Derby since Hank Allen finished sixth with Northern Wolf in the 1989 edition of the Derby. He’ll just be the second Black trainer since 1951.

While he hasn’t let himself think about ‘what ifs’ to this point. Demeritte said with the final work behind him, now he’ll start dreaming a little bit. But one thing he’ll keep in mind is just how lucky he is to be here.

“This means more really than I can describe talking for a few minutes,” he said. “It goes really deep. I feel like I am representing a lot of people … And for me, it’s rough now (with his health).”

“A lot of days, I didn’t think I would be here,” he said. “But I just keep going, and why wouldn’t you be if you are training West Saratoga?”

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