- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2008

Kent Desormeaux’s career as a Hall of Fame jockey broke quickly from the gate in Maryland. Two decades later, he is nearby in New York preparing to ride in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes aboard Big Brown, the prohibitive favorite to win racing’s first Triple Crown in 30 years.

But Desormeaux’s personal journey was far longer than simply here to there and vastly more complicated. It encompassed countless miles and an array of triumphs, tragedy and disappointment. All told, the trip might lead to history’s finish line.

“I’m just thrilled out of my skin,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I realize how immortal this is. It’s monumental.”

Desormeaux likes to say that if the Kentucky Derby is the cake and the Preakness the icing, the Belmont is the candle. Yet even if he fails to win, his life has been richly illuminated. At 38, he basically has reinvented himself with a new outlook and world view, the result of “age and maturity and understanding it all,” he said. “I’ve been thrown a lot of curveballs.”

His lifelong ride began in Maurice, La., the heart of Cajun country. The population is listed as 749, but Desormeaux disputes that, claiming that about 650 live there, a veritable metropolis by comparison. No matter. More than 100 townsfolk, friends and family members will be at the Belmont on the big day.

Desormeaux started riding back home as a 16-year-old apprentice.

“He was tiny,” recalled retired jockey Eddie Maple, who won the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs in Bossier City three times in the 1980s. “He couldn’t have weighed more than 95 pounds, and he had this squeaky little voice. And he was in awe of other jockeys like [Jorge] Velasquez and [Angel] Cordero.”

Even then, that squeaky little voice produced what Maple calls “a little bit of gibberish.” Desormeaux uses the adjective, “mouthy,” describing the singular trait of his formerly long-standing persona.

“I think my mouth got me in trouble a few times,” he said. “I was a little brash, I think. To be brash at such a young age, I think it wears thin.”

Not so much when you win. Still only 16, Desormeaux left for Maryland - Pimlico and Laurel Park mainly - where he won three straight national riding titles and set the standing record for most wins in a year (599) at any track in 1989.

“I knew he was destined to be a top-class rider right from the beginning,” said Mario Pino, another top Maryland jockey who’s now based in Delaware and who became Desormeaux’s close friend.

“When he first started out, you could see glimpses of his talent that’s more than normal talent. I saw the raw talent that could be something special. … I was second to him a lot.”

And the “mouthy” thing. True?

“Yes,” Pino said. “But you know what? After a little while I put it together. It wasn’t that so much; it was the confidence he had. It’s not bad. It’s just the way it is. Me, I’m quiet. I wish I could have had a little more cockiness.”

Desormeaux eventually took his talent - and his mouth - to Southern California. His success continued despite a scary accident in 1992 when he was thrown from a horse. He suffered a fractured skull and wound up deaf in one ear. In 1998, he won the first two legs of the Triple Crown aboard Real Quiet only to lose the Belmont to Victory Gallop by a nose.

“If I did it all over again, I’d do it exactly the same way,” he said. “I was very proud of the ride I gave. I thought I gave it a great ride, and I sleep well at night. I’m a religious person, and if it was meant to be, it would have happened. I did everything in my power to get there.

“When I turned Real Quiet loose at the quarter pole, I knew I’d win. For some unknown reason, the horse decided to fool around, which he’d never done before. He certainly wasn’t tired. When you know these kind of things deep inside, as fact, you know it just wasn’t meant to be.”

But Desormeaux found himself slumping in California and it only got worse, his Kentucky Derby victory in 2000 aboard Fusaichi Pegasus and election to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2004 notwithstanding.

His attitude was indeed wearing thin. Desormeaux became ostracized by a new breed of California trainers and had difficulty getting mounts. His career was in serious decline.

“The business changes every day and people come and go through the industry,” he said. “The most difficult thing is for a rider to maintain consistency through the changes. For me, I didn’t enjoy going through the changes.

“I was spoiled, no doubt. I can’t stand not being No. 1. … I started slacking, and I couldn’t infiltrate the best barns.”

Desperate for a change of scenery, Desormeaux revived himself in Japan, a decision he later called a “savior.” There, he met trainer Kazuo Fujisawa, whose Casino Drive is considered the prime challenger to Big Brown. It was Desormeaux, in fact, who rode Casino Drive to an impressive victory in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont on May 10.

In 2006, he made the big change, uprooting his wife, Sonia, and his sons, Joshua and Jacob, from California and moving to the New York racing circuit. That was difficult, but the family had bigger problems. Jacob, who is 9, was born deaf in one ear as result of a rare, inherited disorder known as Usher syndrome. A cochlear implant restored Jacob’s hearing, but the degenerative disease eventually is expected to rob Jacob of most of his sight.

“He’s the most resilient human being I’ve ever met,” Desormeaux said. “He was born completely deaf, and he hears now.”

That was a godsend, he said, but Jacob’s future remains uncertain. Citing the outpouring of support his family has received and the ongoing Usher’s syndrome research at the Louisiana State University Medical Center in New Orleans, “now we can only hope for a second godsend,” he said.

Desormeaux acknowledges the turbulence and challenges of the last few years led to a profound change in his personality and disposition. That is, he finally got it.

“I think I’ve learned how to prioritize, and I realize how important the little things are and how not so important other things are,” he said.

“I’m a different person than the one that went to Japan. The person who went to Japan arrived fresh, anxious and hungry. I felt like I was in a new place. If everyone thought I was sour, mean, brash in California, I could come to Japan or New York and build a new character. Now I can shake people’s hands and introduce them to this new person. A person who could be kind and energetic and thoughtful and fun-loving.”

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