Riding lessons

In up-and-down career, Desormeaux learns to bounce back

Preakness

May 16, 2008|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN REPORTER

Jockey Kent Desormeaux had just finished watching a tape from NBC showing his family in the grandstand two weeks ago when he won the Kentucky Derby on Big Brown.

With luck tomorrow at Pimlico Race Course, Desormeaux could help stage a replay, guiding Big Brown to victory in the second jewel of the Triple Crown before his wife and children - as well as many Maryland racing fans who undoubtedly remember him breaking out as the apprentice with the Cajun name and the skills beyond his 17 years.

If that happens, Desormeaux would be thrilled, perhaps not beyond words - because he has always had the words - but beyond our knowing.

Maybe no one can understand his range of emotions. For Desormeaux, 38, the victory meant redemption, highlighting his return to the pinnacle of the sport. It also meant joy in his family, and he could see his wife, Sonia, and sons Joshua, 15, and Jacob, 9, relish his win.

But Desormeaux's Derby victory meant even more to his family, specifically Jacob. His youngest child has Usher syndrome, a condition that affects both hearing and vision. So while Jacob can still see, his father gave him an indelible memory to cherish - and a role model for the courage he'll need to face the blindness that is closing in on him.

The syndrome has no cure.

"It has changed our lives," Desormeaux said. "We spend our time educating ourselves and reading and trying to find a cure or help to slow it down."

"That's the worst," Sonia Desormeaux said. "There's nothing out there right now. The doctors say there is nothing we can do. Just that thought - it's such a feeling of helplessness."

A long ride

It has been a long ride from Desormeaux's apprentice days in Maryland back to the top of his industry.

He rode his first stakes winner for Maryland trainer King Leatherbury in 1987, during a rookie season when the Louisiana native won 297 races in fewer than eight months. Now he's on the back of Big Brown with his third chance at a Triple Crown.

In between, there have been extreme highs - Real Quiet's Triple Crown bid, Fusaichi Pegasus' Derby win. Three Eclipse Awards. Induction into the Hall of Fame. And lows - a decline in 1997 (three years without leading any meet in wins) he described as going from "being on top of the world to falling off the face of the Earth" and another drop-off in 2005 (fewer than 200 wins combined in '05 and '06), which again forced him to re-evaluate his commitment to the sport and "start over."

To Maryland horsemen, the dips in the jockey's career are mystifying.

"The first time I ever saw him ride as an apprentice rider ... I recognized it right away," Leatherbury said. "He had the true ability - just the way he rode. The hands. He let a horse relax. He kept them off the pace and always knew where he was. Finished well. Horses ran for him, and they still do. ...

"He has ended up as a great rider. What happened in between, I don't know."

Sonia Desormeaux said when her husband first went to California, he had to learn the lesson of humility, and by the time he came back east, he was working on maturity.

"All I'd ever known before then was leading rider, leading rider," Kent Desormeaux said. "I thought it was me that made the difference between winning and losing. I thought they were lucky to have me on their horses. I needed to remember what they had done for me."

Once that lesson was learned, Desormeaux quickly found better rides and by 1998 was on Real Quiet, His success continued until 2005, when he hit his next skid. His longtime, go-to trainers weren't getting the best horses.

"I was always riding for the same people, but the people I was riding for weren't winning the way they had been," said Desormeaux, who led the Southern California jockey standings 11 times in the 1990s.

Desormeaux was getting what his agent, Mike Sallito, calls "stale" and Desormeaux calls "sulky and sour."

Unhappy, he picked up his tack in 2006 and moved to New York.

"The hardest thing is trying to stay steady in a sport where everything around you is constantly changing," veteran Maryland rider Mario Pino said. "The trainers change, the owners change, the jockey colony changes. Even the horses change."

When Desormeaux moved east, "It was like being a bug boy [apprentice] again," he said. "I enjoyed it. Seeing new faces. Friendly faces. In California, they'd spin like a top when they saw me coming. Here, I'd walk in a barn and they'd say, `Welcome to the East Coast.'"

Big Brown's majority owner Mike Iavarone saw the passion and hired Desormeaux to ride his everyday horses.

"For the last year, Kent has gone down on his belly for us," Iavarone said. "Obviously, all of our horses aren't as good as Big Brown, but Kent rode every one of them the same. Every race is like the Kentucky Derby for Kent."

The culmination of their relationship came when Iavarone called Desormeaux's agent and told him: "`I'll give you the opportunity to ride him [Big Brown], but you have to commit to ride him through the Triple Crown.'"

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