SARATOGA SPRINGS — Cherie DeVaux uses one of those moving and storage pod rentals as a tack room.
It’s as bare bones as you can get, but all the essentials are in that box.
That includes a small framed photo of Lady Eli propped up against a wall.
“She’s right here,” DeVaux said a few days before opening day for the Saratoga Race Course meet, showing off the photo of her favorite horse.
Lady Eli will always be close to DeVaux’s heart. As Chad Brown’s assistant trainer, she nursed the turf star back to health, and back to her previous high standard of performance, a minor miracle for a horse who had contracted the life-threatening hoof disease laminitis.
The mare also symbolizes the qualities that make DeVaux a promising new head trainer, an assistant to Brown for eight years and Chuck Simon for six who struck out on her own this spring.
Early morning sunrise on the main track with Cherie DeVaux at Saratoga Race Course before opening day. (Photo: Erica Miller)
Having grown up around harness horses — her father, Butch, is a long-time trainer based at Saratoga Raceway, and two of her seven brothers are drivers — Cherie DeVaux, 36, was exposed to racehorses at a young age. Her total package of qualifications also includes an innate love of the animal, which was well illustrated by her dedication throughout the Lady Eli saga, which improbably culminated in an Eclipse Award last year.
“I’m incredibly thankful for all the opportunities to be part of horses and clients that are the highest of the highs of the sport,” she said. “But there were times when things didn’t always go right, and we had to come up with a new plan and stop what we were doing and regroup with a horse. You have to learn how to take the bad things that come and know that you can persevere through that.”
“She’s a dedicated person, and just a good person who loves the horse,” Simon said. “She’s a hard worker and has the right instincts. She naturally knows what to do, whether it’s a horse who’s colicky or has some issue, she knows what to do and won’t panic. I’m sure those traits helped her out when she went to Chad, which is a huge outfit.”
DeVaux was born in Saratoga Springs and grew up in Florida, then lived in New York helping oversee Brown’s string at Belmont Park, where she will continue to be based.
She has a mixed bag of 14 horses in her barn and started Dark Energy in the last race on Friday’s Opening Day.
He looked like a winner through the stretch, only to be caught at the last second and nailed at the wire by Cape Angel to lose by a neck.
It was as tough a beat as a horse could experience, so why was this woman beaming afterward?
“I have been doing this long enough that you have to look and see who’s coming, and I did see Jose [Lezcano, on Cape Angel] coming and knew it was a footrace and saw he had plenty of horse. But, hey, not disappointed,” DeVaux said Saturday morning.
“It takes the wind out of your sails, especially when it looks like you’re home-free, but I’m super-proud of the horse and really happy about the performance that he put in.”
Her father has had knee surgery and couldn’t make it to the track, but he watched on TV and wasn’t surprised when her horse ran so well.
“She’s tough. She’s a go-getter,” Butch DeVaux said. “If she sets her mind on something, she’ll do it.
“It’s a big challenge, but she has a name out there, and they know she’s a worker. It’s a tough job. You can’t go on vacation, because that’s your life. But if you’re dedicated, you can do it, and she is dedicated. I’m really proud of her. We all are.”
Besides her family name, Cherie DeVaux will always be associated with Brown’s success in recent years.
Simon, a Saratoga Catholic High graduate now based at Gulfstream Park in Florida, worked for Butch DeVaux at the harness track when he was in high school and Cherie was still a toddler.
Her father said she was first on a horse when she was 2, and eventually she became an exercise rider.
By the time DeVaux was in her early twenties, Simon discovered he was short an exercise rider one morning, and after word got around, someone sent her to help out Simon on a spot basis.
“The last time I had seen her she was 2 years old,” Simon said. “People who work with trotters, they’re caretakers. She would come in to ride and then pitch in on other stuff, whatever needed to be done. Some riders, when they’re done, they might smoke a cigarette or take a break during the down time.
“Toward the end of the meet, I asked her what her plans were, and she didn’t know. I said, ‘You should consider being a trainer.’ You can only be a rider for so long. There’s a ceiling for that. But she had the wherewithal. She was a natural. I didn’t have to tell her what to do.”
Now that DeVaux is a head trainer, “All the decisions are my own, so any repercussions from a bad one are solely on my shoulders,” she said. “This is a challenge. It’s the hardest time of the year, but just to be out there and compete is exciting.”
She doesn’t have any Lady Elis in her barn, but you have to start somewhere.
What she has is experience and a profound attachment to the horses.
That came into play when she shepherded Lady Eli back from laminitis. She was an undefeated 3-year-old when she got hurt and subsequently developed laminitis, then it took over a year to get her back to the track.
The barn and her fans were simply happy that she was still alive, but the filly took it a step further and regained her form, finishing second in her comeback race at Saratoga in 2016, and winning a championship in 2017.
“That was an amazing journey, to see her develop into where she was before she got hurt,” DeVaux said. “To be a part of the integral process to not just get her well, but to where she came back better before was something I never thought I’d be part of. It really was a miracle, to sit on a bucket, with her in an ice tub, wondering what her fate was, to taking her to the Breeders’ Cup and her being at the top of the top in the world was incredibly amazing.”
Like any young trainer trying to gain a foothold in such a competitive sport, it’ll take time for DeVaux to build her stock to the point where she can start taking a swing at the stakes company that is the gold standard in barns like Brown’s.
But she appears to have the tools to get there.
“Organizing and running a huge organization and being a big part of that [with Brown], from an administrative standpoint, you learn how to manage your time and manage your people. All that was valuable,” DeVaux said. “It’s been a goal of mine my entire life, and coming from a family of horse trainers — even though it’s different — I had the goal when I first started to go out on my own. Life changes, things in my personal life and professionally that all lined up for me to take the next step.”
“One thing she had trouble with early on is, in every walk of life, you always find people who are not as ambitious as you are, and that drives you crazy,” Simon said. “That’s one thing that had her flummoxed. She even hit a groom with a saddle one time, and every time I see her now I have to say, “Have you hit anybody with a saddle today?’ and she says, ‘I’m so much better than that now!'”