Desormeaux rides high again Commentary: Jockey Kent Desormeaux basks in Kentucky Derby glory, capping a comeback in a career that began with huge success in Maryland but had been marred by setbacks on, off the track.

May 03, 1998|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN COLUMNIST

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Kent Desormeaux was moving from one interview to another, still floating in the moment, when someone handed him his 4-year-old son, Joshua.

"Josh wants his Daddy," came a voice from the happy pack of family and friends trailing Desormeaux after the Kentucky Derby yesterday.

Desormeaux closed his eyes and hugged Joshua, alone with his thoughts, then kept walking through a corridor of reporters.

"Man, I'm there," he said out loud to no one in particular. "I'm on the highest cloud in the sky."

He paused, then spoke again.

"I feel so complete," he said.

A few minutes earlier, Desormeaux, 28, had ridden a bay colt named Real Quiet to an upset victory in the Derby before 143,215 fans at Churchill Downs.

His life was, indeed, complete at last.

After spending his early years as a jockey in Maryland, sweeping every race in sight at Laurel and Pimlico, and then encountering tough times after moving to California to ride in 1990, Desormeaux finally was at the peak of his sport.

"There were some times when this [moment] seemed a long way off," said Desormeaux's wife, Sonia, standing nearby in a broad-brimmed hat as Desormeaux reviewed his winning ride for reporters.

A terrible fall in 1994 and an enduring slump had dimmed his star until he finally began making a comeback last year.

Joshua's calamitous birth had also tested the limits of his faith.

Such adversity seemed beneath him as a prodigy from Louisiana's Cajun country who grew up around horses. He prayed to stop growing as a boy so he could ride, and God obliged. Then he moved to Maryland in 1987 and did no wrong for so long. He was racing's golden child.

While still in his teens and based in Maryland, he won two Eclipse Awards for riding excellence and led the nation in wins three times.

"Coming back to Maryland [for the Preakness in two weeks] is going be a great homecoming," he said yesterday. "I owe this [Derby] moment to the horsemen of Maryland, the Charlie Hadrys and King Leatherburys, the people who put me on their horses and got me started."

He left Maryland because there was nothing left to accomplish. He was too big.

"You always want to move up, no matter what profession you're in," he said.

He chose to ride in California against the nation's toughest colony of jockeys.

Although he didn't win nearly as often, he won enough to keep his career on the rise. He won the Pacific Classic, the Hollywood Oaks and his first Breeders' Cup race on Kotashaan in 1993.

Then it all came crashing down one day at Santa Anita in 1994. A mount dropped him and stepped on him, sending him to a hospital with 16 skull fractures.

Sonia, his high school sweetheart, was eight months pregnant when a friend called with the news. She went into labor after having been bedridden for two months to ward off a premature delivery.

"I was in one hospital, and he was in another," Sonia said.

When her labor stalled and was complicated by toxemia, arrangements were made to move her husband to her side. Desormeaux was present for Joshua's birth, and then all three members of the family were moved to intensive care.

"You could write a book about it," Sonia said. "We were in tough shape there for a while."

Desormeaux recovered and returned to the track, but then came the first slump of his career. He was criticized for not finishing races hard enough. The stewards suspended him. He lost some of his top mounts.

"I was way down," he said.

His comeback began last summer, when trainer Bob Baffert gave him a chance to ride some top horses. But that chance began with a lecture.

"I said, 'Kent, your attitude is bad,' " Baffert said yesterday. "If you want to ride for me, you have to quit riding other people's horses. Ride your own horse."

In other words, pay attention to what you're doing, not what everyone else is doing. Snap out of it!

Back to his old, aggressive self, Desormeaux won the riding title at the last Hollywood Park meeting and came to the Derby yesterday on a Baffert-trained 8-1 shot.

He responded with a textbook ride around a cluttered track. He hugged the rail early, breezed up the backstretch away from the traffic, then swerved outside and chugged around the field turning for home.

He was well in front down the stretch, as a late charge from Victory Gallop fell short.

Desormeaux raised an arm as he crossed the finish line, whooped, put both hands up, whooped again and gave a thumbs-up sign to the TV cameras.

"It was a feeling of total shock," he said later.

The crowds descended on him after he dismounted at the winner's circle, his career at a peak, his life in perfect order, his mother and wife and child hugging him, reporters pecking away with questions.

Suddenly and forever, he was a Kentucky Derby winner.

When someone handed him Joshua, all dressed up in a coat and tie, Desormeaux grabbed the boy and hugged hard, and you knew what he was thinking: That a jockey's life couldn't get any better than this.

How could it?

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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