Apr 2014 Racing Calendar
1600 ExpositionThe golden legacy of the Desomer family
Believe me when I tell you a fifteen-minute phone conversation with Vickie Desomer could have just about been all I needed to bring you a story. However, I could not resist the invitation to take a drive down to Wilton, just southeast of the sprawling Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove, and spend a couple hours walking through one of the most vital and esteemed places that connect to California harness racing. There are several major racing operations between Wilton and Elk Grove that represent a large and concentric percentage of the Cal Expo racing family and their land. Making it especially important to come down for this visit is that Steve and Vickie Desomer are now deep in the process of winding down their longstanding and multi-dimensional racehorse operations. Even with the sale of their property, they'll not leave the sport entirely. It would be fair to say that their work in harness racing is going to reduce by about eighty to ninety percent by the time we reconvene our racing program in Sacramento this fall. They will not be continuing to provide the multiple types of service to our region's industry that they have successfully delivered since the 1970s at the level they had. They are ready to scale down, try a bit of relaxed retirement with family, and devote some time to other interests. However, their influence will still have an impact on our racing for years to come. Robin Clements, who has worked with this family for decades, commemorates the stable commitment to supporting ongoing California breeding development all the way down to her personalized license plate on her car. The Desomers have produced uncountable stories often loaded with vigorous success and ingenious activities that only a deeply immersed life with racehorses and a lot of can-do attitude would deliver. This is their story as I saw and heard it one gorgeous spring morning over a cup of coffee and next a long walk throughout their facility.
The complex of the Desomer Stable is strikingly large and beautiful, rich with history and evidence of innovation, drive, and commitment. Piloting my car into the entrance of the property, you enter on a very long and well-paved road that I'd like you to remember for later in the story. It had a very important purpose aside from cars for quite a while. On arrival, you are able to see upwards of twenty horses over a multi-acre open sprawl. Land, grass, fences, horses, ponds . . . it is a pastoral scene in every sense. I kept looking around for the golf course! A large stable to the right contains many more horses. Once in the middle of their ranch, just about all you can see around you is indeed all theirs. It is that large. Just a handful of miles from suburbia, you are easily a world away. Numerous trees abound, including some redwoods. The view in many areas of the grounds rivals that of top-notch city parks.
Robin Clements joined Vickie and I as we all sat together at a long kitchen bar. The coffee was on and the stories began to flow. They weren't all about horse racing, either. Steve Desomer has developed some remarkable personal collections and wildly successful hobbies of late, including acquisition of gold mining equipment. In just these recent times, he has been able to gain a yield of better than one pound of gold in the Sierra foothills at his stake by use of specialized equipment he acquired. "When Steve gets interested in something, he jumps right in!" Vickie explained. When you consider that most gold hobbyists generally just find flecks when panning and washing, and a couple ounces is a lifetime achievement, this is an enormous outcome. Part of racing successfully is acting with an opportunity-mindset: Seizing that chance, finding that gap, going for that last little bit. We know that all the best ones do. It's not hard to see how a successful horseman can be a winning seeker of precious metals.
The mindset of opportunity and finding that way to make something work extended to the very driveway of the complex. Up until 2000, harness racing in our state was not only conducted at Cal Expo, but in Southern California during the cooler months of a year. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Hollywood Park and Fairplex hosted meets. Del Mar even took it on for a bit. This made for an extensive commuting schedule for Steve and Vickie. With the operations based out of Wilton, Vicki would make the journey each week by car up and down the state. When it was necessary, Steve would fly directly to the stable. Steve held a private pilot's license for many years, and the entry roadway served as his airport.
Talk turned to the focus of the operation: The horses, and the road to California with them. Immigrating to Canada at age twenty from Europe, Steve's road to California included stops in Michigan. And there are so many horses that we discussed past and present, with even a look at the future that there still will be. Champion horses such as Dante Jay, Desmond, and the one perhaps starting it all for them, Great Irish. Dante Jay was the lone Cal-Bred to win the American Trotting Classic. Vickie mentioned her time for a season acting as outrider. Such recollections as Charlotte's Web, who was off-stride several times in a major race young in her career but still found all the heart to win some ten years ago, were mentioned. Horses such as True Gypsy and the Breeders' Crown-competitive Baroque weaved their way through the conversation. Between her and Robin, the stories flew fast of travel and quick, thoughtful decision-making. Even with the promise of a more relaxed time following new pursuits and family interests, Vickie still acknowledges this is a major change: "This is the hardest work to walk away from." Vickie reflected. "There isn't a day that goes by that I'm not on the computer checking results."
It took walking the shed rows to begin to fully appreciate the family's touch on our sport. Sure, you can read names in a program, and not a night goes by where you find the Desomers do not have some kind of connection to a horse in several races or more. The Desomers also seemingly have an interest in nearly any California Sire Stakes contest that comes our way, and Steve still often drives these newcomers for those events. It almost goes without saying that they've trained or provided some sort of assistance for near any California racing connection you could imagine. However, when you see all the horses in person, you begin to appreciate the true influence and high level of trust that the overall community has in this family.
Among the highlights that gave me pause along my tour of their property, there are horses unconnected to the Desomers that are temporarily staying there for a period of rest, a couple retired horses that are being kept for the admirable reason of outright compassion, and there was also a mare in very heavy foal, ready to deliver any day. While viewing this expectant mother, I learned there is an automatic system which they use attached to the expectant mother. When set off, it will trigger a cell phone notice once evidence is substantial (a lengthy period of lying down) that the foal is ready to enter the world. They can all get to that delivering mother in minutes and assist with the birthing process as needed. While the scene of them running to get involved in bringing a foal into our world conjures an image right out of a James Herriot book, I had no idea such a thing as automatic notification for a horse's birth ever existed. I was then shown a training gate. Think about this: Picture six gated arms emerging from a long steel bar that you would attach like a trailer to a vehicle. The gates look just like what standardbreds would approach at the beginning of a race. Steve Desomer built this long ago as a training tool. You would never know in looking at it that this was fashioned solely by any one man. It looks factory-perfect.
Identifying a need or improvement and going for it and seizing opportunity. Those messages rang loud and clear all morning during my visit. I walked through a living history with a smidge of future still insistent on being here for us. Their legacy will live on.
- Leighton Worthey