Tuesday, May 25, 2004

It wasn’t enough for jockey Kent Desormeaux to dominate Maryland racing when he was a teenager. He wanted to ride the nation’s best horses against the leading riders in Southern California. The move proved to be a winner.

Desormeaux was elected to the National Racing Museum’s Hall of Fame yesterday along with trainer Shug McGaughey and champions Skip Away and Flawlessly. The quartet will be inducted Aug.9 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Desormeaux, who rode for four years at small Louisiana tracks before he arrived at Laurel Park as a 16-year-old apprentice, had talent that belied his experience. He won two Eclipse Awards as the nation’s top rider and led the country in victories three straight years, including a record 598 in 1989. Then he opted for the more lucrative West Coast circuit.

Desormeaux never quite dominated out West like he did in Maryland, where three victories in an afternoon earned a shrug from fans. However, he rode two Kentucky Derby winners and earned another Eclipse award en route to 4,419 victories worth $169.2million. Horse of the year Kotashaan and Derby champions Real Quiet and Fusaichi Pegasus were among his 506 stakes winners. Desormeaux, 34, said he still might have become known nationally in Maryland, but his goal always was to win the nation’s biggest races.

“There’s nothing more fun than winning four races a day and wondering what went wrong with the fifth,” he said. “But if I wanted to be in the likes of the Kentucky Derby, I had to make a move and am very happy I did.”

Agent Gene Short remembered finding Desormeaux at one of the unlicensed “bush” tracks that permeate Louisiana’s rural towns, places where fellow Cajun riders Eddie Delahoussaye, Shane Sellers and Randy Romero also developed. Short promised Desormeaux’s parents their son would earn his high school diploma while living with the agent’s family in Maryland. Desormeaux not only earned his degree but more than $2million over the next three years.

“We just got lucky,” Short said. “Trainer Bud Delp put Kent on a horse that won and then another that won, and then everybody wanted him.”

Said Desormeaux: “[The bush tracks] probably launched my career. I came to Maryland with added skills and a little more polish.”

Desormeaux’s most spectacular local victory may have come aboard a nondescript claimer in 1989. He nearly fell at the top of the Laurel stretch with both legs out of the irons, but he recovered to win in the final jump.

“The horse just bolted, and I was holding on by my toenails,” he said. “I still don’t believe it happened. It was all reaction. I was just trying to hang on.”

Skip Away was the 1998 horse of the year after he took 3-year-old colt and older male titles the previous two years. Purchased for $22,500 as a 2-year-old, the Maryland colt won 18 races for $9.6million. Skip Away beat Cigar in the 1998 Jockey Club Gold Cup and took the 1997 Breeders’ Cup Classic for trainer Sonny Hine, who was elected to the Hall of Fame last year following his death in 2000.

“What kept Sonny going was the horse,” said Carolyn Hine, his wife and the owner of Skip Away. “It’s something that gave Sonny more years and life. Skippy wasn’t a horse but a member of the family.”

McGaughey was chosen in his first year of eligibility. He was perhaps best known for training Easy Goer, who foiled Sunday Silence’s 1989 Triple Crown bid by winning the Belmont Stakes in one of the better rivalries of the spring classics. However, McGaughey said he was proudest of Personal Ensign’s unbeaten career. McGaughey’s 1,379 victories, worth $89.9million, include 237 graded stakes and eight Breeders’ Cup races.

Flawlessly was the 1992-93 champion grass mare. The daughter of 1978 Triple Crown champion Affirmed won 16 races worth $2.57million.

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