Pressure is extra weight on Desormeaux's big ride

June 06, 1998|By John Eisenberg

ELMONT, N.Y. -- Bob Baffert, the trainer of Real Quiet, couldn't make it any clearer.

"My job is done," he said yesterday, on the eve of the Belmont Stakes.

So who takes over? Who is left to try to complete racing's first Triple Crown sweep in 20 years?

"That's me," jockey Kent Desormeaux said. "I have to get the job done now."

At age 28, eight years removed from his days of dominance at Laurel and Pimlico, Desormeaux faces the ride of his life today.

With a dozen horses challenging him, he will find either immortality or ignominy aboard Real Quiet.

"It's an emotional time," Desormeaux said yesterday in the jockey's room. "The whole world is watching me ride one race for a $5 million bonus [that goes to a Triple Crown-winning owner]. It's like a fantasy come to life.

"I find myself thinking back over my career -- my whole life, really, and what it took to get me to this point."

He has come a long way from the bush tracks of Louisiana, where he first hopped on a horse.

For that matter, he has come a long way from his days as a young rider in Maryland, where he ran out of races to win.

"I think about the days when I was galloping horses before and after school, when all my friends were off riding bikes," he said. "I think about the people who gave me a shot in Maryland. I think about the tough times in California.

"My mind is like a photo album, a series of pictures of the different people in my life. I want to line them all up and shake their hands and thank them for helping me get to this point. And then I want to go win [the Belmont]."

The pressure is as obvious as a 1-5 favorite. The entire racing industry will watch him intently today, desperate for an ending that doesn't disappoint.

As of yesterday, he wasn't buckling. He was the same, almost comically ebullient jockey who screamed, joked, chattered and let his emotions run wild after riding Real Quiet to wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

"I'm as high as a kite," he said. "The thing I have to do now is stay focused."

More than the Derby or Preakness, which Real Quiet won with powerful moves on the second turn, the Belmont is a jockey's race. Run at a distance of 1 1/2 miles, it often is won by the jockey who saves the most horse for the end.

Knowing when to make a move, or for how long, is tough when the horses haven't run this far before.

"There's definitely a lot more time to think in this race," Desormeaux said. "You can't move too soon and you can't move too late."

Nineteen years ago, Ronnie Franklin moved too soon on Spectacular Bid and lost a Triple Crown bid. He remains haunted to this day.

Last year, Gary Stevens thought he was home on Silver Charm, a Triple Crown winner, until Chris McCarron checkmated him in the final furlong with a wide charge on Touch Gold that Charm never saw until too late.

"It's a rider's race, for sure," Baffert said. "I'm happy to give the reins to Kent. I have a lot of confidence in him. He's riding the best he's ever ridden in his life. And he's riding this horse with great confidence. If he bides his time like he did [in the Derby and Preakness], I feel great about him getting the job done."

Desormeaux smiled when asked to contemplate the idea of a Triple Crown.

"It seemed so far-fetched on Derby day," he said. "The Preakness seemed like it was two days later. Things went so fast. Too fast. I felt like I didn't have time to enjoy [winning] the Derby. I didn't want the glow inside me to end. Then we won [the Preakness] and it was like, 'Wow, bring on the Belmont and this destiny.' And now it seems like six months since the Preakness."

Is he still feeling that glow?

"I'd be the richest man in the world if I could bottle this feeling," he said. "It's so exciting."

To say his life has become a whirlwind is an understatement. Earlier this week, he was a guest on Jay Leno. Then Real Quiet's owner, Mike Pegram, invited him to ride with the horse on the cargo plane from Louisville, where Real Quiet is based, to New York.

"I'm just going and going," he said. "The plane ride was phenomenal. That's part of the business I had never seen. I wouldn't have missed it for anything. Real Quiet became more than just an athlete to me that day. Kissing him on the nose and patting him on the beck, he became a friend and companion."

Together, they will make their bid for racing history today. Baffert has guaranteed a victory. Desormeaux said he was "98 percent" sure.

"Strange things can happen in a race, that's all," he said. "But I love our chances. I love this moment. The energy is unbelievable. I feel it from everyone. What a feeling. I could never have conjured up a dream as huge as this. My eyes are wide open. I can't wait to get on the horse and go. That can't come soon enough."

Pub Date: 6/06/98

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