He's back on top Jockey: Kent Desormeaux's career got off to a blazing start before he was brought down to earth. Now, with a Kentucky Derby victory and increased mounts, he is again sitting comfortably in the saddle.

123rd Preakness

May 15, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

LOS ANGELES -- Kent Desormeaux is reliving his first Kentucky Derby victory.

It's a week after the fact, but the feelings are still close to the surface. He's sitting at Los Alamitos Race Course having dinner with his wife, Sonia, and 5-year-old son, Joshua, and his voice goes hoarse with emotion.

Specifically, he's recalling his thoughts as he crossed the finish line at Churchill Downs aboard Real Quiet.

He remembered his first pony. His first ride. His first starts from the gate in Louisiana and Maryland. The first time he saw "The Black Stallion" and heard Mickey Rooney tell the horse's young jockey, "It's all in the hands. It's in the hands."

"I know, it's hard to believe that anyone could think all that in such a short time, but my whole life and career flashed through my mind," he said. "To win the Kentucky Derby -- after having been on top of the world and then falling off the face of the Earth -- it was like I was wide-awake inside my most fantastic dream."

After years of success, Desormeaux became the jockey no one wanted to see. This is the story of how far he fell and how he has come back to touch the stars once more. Tomorrow, Desormeaux is the only one positioned in the Preakness to take a shot at the Triple Crown.

One year ago, he started turning it around when he went to trainer Bob Baffert and asked to ride his horses. Eventually, he would earn the privilege, but first he had to hear a lecture. "The trouble with you is you've got to quit riding other people's horses and just ride your own," Baffert told him.

He also had to prove he really wanted to change.

Top of the world

Back in Maryland, when Desormeaux was setting national records as a 17-year-old apprentice and making a big name for himself with 244 wins his first season and a record 598 wins in his third, people always said: "He's the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet." They wished him well as he packed up two Eclipse Awards at the end of the 1989 season and left for California to race against the sport's elite.

"From the moment he arrived [in California], you could see his talent," said jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. "He was very daring, but a little bit rough, too. He could make it very hard on you, and a lot of jockeys didn't like it. But he learned -- and we learned that he is very strong in the stretch. He gets everything a horse has to give."

Desormeaux added a third Eclipse Award in 1992 at age 23. And a terrible fall at the end of the year, which left him with 10 skull fractures, six facial fractures and no hearing in one ear, barely slowed him.

The fall to Earth

He had a brilliant 1993. He rode trainer Richard Mandella's Kotashaan to victory in the Breeders' Cup, was the top rider at three tracks and won the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award.

But it was that same year that things started going badly. In the Beverly Hills Handicap at Hollywood Park, there were only four horses in the race, but Desormeaux allowed his mount, Flawlessly, to get pinned in all the way around and finished second in the $300,000 race. In the Del Mar Handicap, he rode the favorite Kotashaan and finished second.

Then, to top it off, at the $3.6 million Japan Cup in November, Desormeaux was again riding Kotashaan and leading when he misjudged the finish line for the second time that day. He stood up in the saddle, and finished second to Legacy World, costing his trainer and owner nearly $1 million, the difference between first and second place.

"There is no doubt that I was on top of the world," Desormeaux said. "No one needed to tell me how to ride a horse. I became very irresponsible with rides.

"I was immature in a number of situations. I wasn't professional. I didn't pay attention to trainer's instructions, and I wasn't persevering to the wire."

"I tried to talk to him," Mandella said last weekend at Hollywood Park. "He knew how I felt, but I talked to him when he was in the middle of his problem and I don't think he understood what I was saying. He was having success at a very young age, and he got a little too carried away with himself."

Nearly everyone, including Desormeaux, says he simply lacked maturity.

"He didn't understand that first it takes a great horse, a trainer, an owner, grooms -- everyone on the team," said Mandella. "He is and has always been a very good rider. But his attitude -- it offended and upset people."

Mandella never stopped using Desormeaux totally, but he used him less.

"He wasn't the first one I thought of," Mandella said.

At that point, Desormeaux said, he felt self-important.

"I thought it was me that made the difference between winning and losing," he said. "I thought they were lucky to have me on their horses.

"I needed to remember what they had done for me. They know when they have a horse sitting on a win. They used to put me on that horse."

Desormeaux remembers walking in one stable door with his then-agent Gene Short and seeing the trainers literally run out the doors at the other end, "because they didn't want to see me."

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