It's late afternoon on the bayou in Lafourche Parish, La. Wet burlap sacks of raw oysters piled up on the patio to be shucked. Seventy-five pounds of crawfish are reaching a peak cayenne-pepper boil. Spicy crabs and steaming shrimp spread out on the picnic table next to a pot of red beans and rice. Take your pick between platters of barbeque ribs and potato salad or a bowl of etouffee. Ice chests stocked with cold beer and soft drinks under the shade of the magnolia tree. It's just an informal get-together for members of a hunting and fishing club and their families. In the backyard, all of the boys are playing football.
All of the boys except one. On this first Saturday in May, 13-year-old Dex Comardelle is alone in the living room glued to the television and watching live coverage of the 2004 Kentucky Derby. "To this day I can't tell you how or why, but as I listed to the announces talk about all the different horses, it was Smarty Jones that grabbed my attention. There was so much energy around that race. I became a horse racing fan in that moment."
With a spark of inspiration lit, the teenage Comardelle (born and raised in Raceland, La.) took the bit and followed the career of Smarty Jones. "At that time it was 26 years that we did not have a Triple Crown winner," Comardelle remembered. "I could feel the excitement grow race by race. Through the instant infatuation I had for that one horse, I got to experience the ups and downs of the industry. I was hooked. I had no idea it would lead, but I knew horse racing would be a big part of my life."
Once an imagination is captured, passion is difficult to extinguish. Comardelle went on to obtain a bachelor's degree in business with a concentration in hospitality management from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His higher education was capped with an MBA from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. With his educational foundation in place, Dex and his father, Ricky, began a unique business venture called Go-Motel, which provided portable housing, services, and luxury-level accommodations for oil field workers and staff in the Gulf of Mexico.
Comardelle was living the life of coats and ties in the corporate boardroom, but the horses were tugging at his sleeve to return to the tack room. His sister Kristen was given a Thoroughbred mare to train as a barrel racer.
"Funny how things work out," Comardelle said. "With that mare we started developing a small ranch. It made sense. Our family had pleasure horses our whole lives. The farm would be a place for friends and family to keep and enjoy time with their horses. It was as simple as that."
Two paths emerged in the woods for Comardelle, and he decided to take both of them. Putting it all together, a career background in the hospitality business merged and blended with his passion for horses.
"A vision developed," Comardelle said. "My heart started pumping with possibilities. I got the adrenaline to take it a step further and get into commercial breeding. I spent a year looking at bloodlines, visiting farms in Ocala and Lexington for inspiration and layout ideas, and then finally going out and around to purchase some of the broodmares."
On a secluded and shaded country road outside of Scott, La., the end result of Comardelle's singular drive has evolved in the rough. You might need to pinch yourself upon arrival at the spacious and immaculate property. The overall design of the layout, modern barns, and 100 acres of lush grass with a lake is a bit startling.
Don't fence me in. Each of the 10 paddocks at Blue Star is the size of a rugby field. Lay-ups, mare care, and foul-outs are services provided by Comardelle and his sister.
Comardelle has been methodical and patient as well as a keen listener as he implements the phases of his master plan.
"I started off slow with one broodmare," he said. "We foaled out the baby and more followed. I needed to get my feet wet in the job before we started to go full throttle into commercial breeding. All the while, I have been learning from mentors. A lot of people have helped me out along the way when I was getting started. People around this part of the country are eager to help. It's their nature."
Like time-lapse photography, the evolution and growth of Blue Star Racing has been dramatic. The blueprints needed continual revision as the seed sprouted into a plant.
"From what we originally had in mind, the plan kept changing," Comardelle explained. "The barns got bigger. The paddocks got bigger. The arena got bigger. Expansion became the word of the day."
Don't let the fancy wrapping around Blue Star fool you. First-class quality and environmental aesthetics are important to Comardelle, but the connecting thread of the fabric is dedication to customer service.
"I've spent my whole life in business and hospitality," Comardelle said. "I've learned that your customers have certain expectations. First and foremost, our clients love their horses. So whether it is the service you provide or the quality of the facility or any number of factors, if and when you exceed those expectations they will be loyal, and you will get repeat business."
Leading with character, Comardelle has a management style that holds to the long view. "When we went to designing the type of facility we wanted to create," he said, "we wanted a place that would be first and foremost good for the animals. First-class care and attention. That is why we are in this business in the first place - because of our love for animals."
It's not all profit-driven. An example of Comardelle's core interest in caring for horses is the palomino rescue horse named Eclipse.
"He was in a real bad situation when we took him in, but he is safe and looks beautiful now."
The bright cherry on top of the Blue Star Racing pie is the stallion Real Solution. Leased from Calumet Farm, the multiple grade 1 winner stands at Blue Star Racing for a stud fee of $5,000. Muscular, tall, and handsome, 9-year-old Real Solution is a nationally recognized stallion who earned $1,374,175 on the racetrack and retired sound. He won the Arlington Million Stakes at 4 and the Knob Creek Manhattan States at 5. The son of Kitten's Joy was placed in three more grade 1 events.
"Most of all, I was impressed with his looks," Comardelle recalled of the decision to secure Real Solution as a regional sire. "his confirmation is excellent, and I knew he had the record to back him up. The (Ken and Sarah) Ramseys (who bred and raced Real Solution) had done a remarkable job with him throughout his career. Timing is everything, and now is the right time to bring him to Louisiana."
Talk about on time and adding to the excitement. Underscoring the upside of Real Solution as a stallion that could enhance the Louisiana Thoroughbred breeding program was the March Ocala Breeders' Sales 2-year-olds in training sale. A pair of colts sired by Real Solution sold for a combined $1 million.
With the die-cast of Real Solution standing in Louisiana, Comardelle is optimistic about the future.
"I'm convinced he is going to throw horses than can run on multiple surfaces at multiple distances," the 28-year-old Comardelle said. "For a stallion, 'Real' (Real Solution's nickname) has the perfect attitude. He's a pleasure to have around on the farm. He works well with the groom and believe me, he knows his job. In the breeding shed he's all business."
Comardelle's days of wearing a coat and tie are things of the past. His briefcase has been replaced with a pitchfork. It has taken 3 ½ years to develop the property that is Blue Star Racing. A flannel pullover speckled with strands of hay is now part of his daily wardrobe.
"There is no such thing as a typical day," Comardelle said, laughing. "It's sunrise to sunset. Every day is different and comes with new challenges. That's one of the things about this industry. There is never a dull moment. You never know what's coming next."
At Blue Star Racing the phrase "all hands on deck" translates to a team of three. Twenty-three-year-old Kristen has a degree in equine management. Mr. Ken is the full-time groom and handler. Everyone involved brings a pleasant attitude, enthusiasm, and an infectious smile to the daily tasks.
"We are hands-on here and wear a lot of hats. The Cajuns say that you never work a day in your life if you enjoy what you do," Comardelle offered. "I've been a part of multiple industries and taken the same attitude and approach to each type of job. If you keep putting in the hard work and don't complain, then at the end of the day you should get good results."
All will be eventually forgiven, but the back story behind the naming of Blue Star Racing triggers an embarrassed laugh from Comardelle.
"We have always been big Dallas Cowboys fans in our family," Comardelle admitted. "One of our business ventures has been a wine bar in Cowboy Stadium. I've been a fan for as long as I can remember."
Dex Comardelle might be from the other side of the bayou, but he has enjoyed a welcome acceptance from the horsemen and Cajun community around Lafayette, La. Don Stemmans owns and operates a feed and tack shop in nearby Carencro and is a legendary fixture around southwest Louisiana.
"He's a sharp kid," Stemmans said. "And he's pretty knowledgeable on pedigree. He's got grit, that's for sure. Just when everybody is going out of business, he is going into it."
If Comardelle is intimidated or stressed over his bold venture into the breeding industry, he doesn't appear to be losing any sleep.
"Especially in this part of the country there are plenty of people with solid experience and information that are willing to help," he said. "Cajuns are a tight-knit group, and hospitality is their second nature. If you don't know the answer, then all you have to do is ask the question and not put on any airs. Even though it is competitive on the racetrack, everybody in this neck of the woods wants to see the other person succeed in whatever they are trying to do.
He might be the new kid on the block but Comardelle is aware of the decades of tradition that surround him.
"I'm proud to be in this part of Louisiana," he said, sitting on an upturned feed bucket. "The people here have a different accent, but everybody gets along. The history and culture here are unique and all about horses. I love to go around and listen to the old-timers tell their stories about the bush tracks and the match races. With these Cajuns you got to be careful. Once you start talking, the next thing you know it's past lunchtime and you don't get any work done."
If anything, Comardelle's vision of the future is not short-signed or limited by geographic boundaries. He sees Blue Star Racing as a potential attraction for breeders from Texas, Arkansas, Florida, and Oklahoma. The blueprints for a new stallion barn are already tucked away. There are plans to stock the lake with bass so families can come out to relax and fish. He talks about the construction of an entertainment building where groups can have events and host parties.
"Of course, the farm is concentrated around the horses, but with an emphasis on being a full-service facility to the community," Comardelle explained. "Our gates are always open. We want to create an atmosphere that is opening and welcoming to our clients. Not just a place to drop off your mare but a way to create future fans. Let the kids see for themselves what goes on at a horse farm. After all, it's the future generations that will keep the industry alive."
Listening between the lines, one wonders if in Comardelle's cheerful optimism, he may be trying to pick up where Smarty Jones left off. Just a big maybe. Get the crawfish pots ready. Put in an order for 10 sacks of oysters. There might be a Kentucky Derby party at Blue Star Racing's farm in the year ahead.