BALTIMORE Jockey Kent Desormeaux once hated seeing visiting riders win Maryland’s major races. Now he is the outsider standing in the winner’s circle.
Desormeaux, riding Kentucky Derby champion Fusaichi Pegasus, will try for his second Preakness Stakes victory in three years in Saturday’s 125th running at Pimlico Race Course.
The Preakness has a small field, with perhaps only three legitimate contenders, and Desormeaux has the hot horse. So soon he could be again chasing the Triple Crown he narrowly missed aboard Real Quiet in 1998.
Those are the kind of big stakes that motivated Desormeaux to leave Maryland after five dominating years, two Eclipse Awards as the nation’s top jockey and a world-record 598 victories in 1989. Desormeaux often was just a bystander at Maryland’s big races, where outside jockeys would fill the best mounts and leave only an occasional long shot for Desormeaux as the best local rider.
That term really bothered Desormeaux, because he knew he could rank among the nation’s elite if given a chance. He began riding at 4, when his father bought a pony one that could walk on two feet and rear up like Roy Rogers’ Trigger from a passing circus. That pony took a bite out of Desormeaux’s ear, but by 13 the Cajun was riding on the famed Louisiana bush tracks, where just staying on a sprinter was considered a victory.
Three years later, Desormeaux came to Maryland, a circuit renowned for creating apprentice champions. Chris McCarron and Sandy Hawley became national riders after starting in Maryland. Desormeaux lived with his agent’s family, fulfilled a promise to his mother to get his high school diploma, and quickly became the hottest rider in the country.
Desormeaux accumulated more than 1,500 victories over a three-year stretch, building such a reputation that bettors claimed they would make him the 3-5 favorite riding an elephant. Desormeaux once nearly fell off a horse at the eighth pole both legs were out of the irons yet remounted and won the photo finish.
Desormeaux could have stayed on the Maryland circuit as its leading rider as long as he wished and become thoroughbred racing’s all-time leading winner. But it wasn’t enough. Money wasn’t the issue, even though the rewards were better in Southern California; Desormeaux already was a millionaire before turning 21.
It was that third Saturday in May that really motivated Desormeaux to relocate. He rode Finder’s Choice to a last-place finish in the 1988 Preakness and Kentucky Jazz to seventh in 1990. Maryland wasn’t developing many national stakes horses, and trainers mostly used their regular riders in the major races in which Desormeaux sought validation.
“To come here and win all these races and never be able to win the signature races at Old Hilltop and Maryland it gives you a desire to test your pride,” he said. “Can I fit in?”
Desormeaux bolted to California in 1990. He won a meeting title in the first year and took another Eclipse Award in 1992. At 25, Desormeaux became the youngest rider to surpass 3,000 victories. At 27, he became the youngest to surpass $100 million in career earnings. He has won 88 major stakes races, including six million-dollar races and two Breeders’ Cups.
So it was doubly gratifying to take the $750,000 Pimlico Special on Saturday aboard Golden Missile. Desormeaux cherishes his occasional returns to Maryland as chances to relive his youth and prove his manhood.
“This makes you feel good inside because the fortunate part of being able to come back is [showing] they gave the opportunity to some little kid who would use it to move forward in his career and life,” he said. “I owe Maryland a deep debt of gratitude for giving me those credentials.”
Not that some heckling railbirds didn’t razz Desormeaux during the Special post parade.
“Just as much as there’s the love, there’s always one [fan] that solidifies you’re still a jockey and gives you the biggest boo in the world and tells you to go back to California,” he said. “Those are the ones that give you the little bit of drive to work a little harder. So thanks for the hecklers.”
Now Desormeaux’s biggest problem is choosing from the many national prospects without harming old relationships. After riding trainer Joe Orseno’s Golden Missile to the Special victory, the two joked about Desormeaux facing Orseno’s Red Bullet, who may be Fusaichi Pegasus’ biggest Preakness challenger. It seems everyone wants Desormeaux, just like in his Maryland days.
“I don’t ride Kent Desormeaux a lot, but I like to ride guys that are on an adrenaline rush,” trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.
Trainer Neil Drysdale began using Desormeaux in 1998, when the tandem won 21 stakes. Desormeaux’s relationship with trainer Bob Baffert had cooled somewhat after he lost the Triple Crown aboard Real Quiet; critics claimed the rider moved too soon in the Belmont Stakes. Drysdale and Desormeaux have endured an uneven relationship over two years, but Drysdale chose Desormeaux over Jerry Bailey to ride Fusaichi Pegasus in the Derby.
“When he was riding [for me] in 1998, he was riding with a great deal of confidence,” Drysdale said. “We had some [differences] in 1999, but he’s riding confidently for me again. I think Kent understands the horse very well. I think they get along well together. He gave him a confident ride in the Derby.”
Desormeaux’s success was tempered recently when he discovered his 3-month-old son, Jacob, is deaf. Desormeaux lost most of the hearing in his right ear during a near-fatal 1992 spill that caused his wife Sonia to deliver their first child, Josh, while Kent watched from a gurney in the delivery room. Jacob may gain some hearing through a cochlea implant that allows electrodes to work as nerve endings, but the diagnosis has awakened Desormeaux to horizons outside the oval he has circled for 14 years.
“It’s sometimes very humbling,” Desormeaux said. “I think my family life is a blessing in disguise because I seem to have prioritized a lot of things and I ride with all the confidence in the world because I really believe to win or lose is not going to change my life. You can degrade that in a way if you like, but it’s very comforting to know that I sit up there knowing if it’s God’s will, then it will happen.”