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This is the first entry on what I hope becomes a wild ride through every possible corner of the Thoroughbred racing fun house. I’ve been told to beware of blogging. It’s not for the faint of heart, or thin of skin. But listen, I’ve been watching horses and jockeys do their thing for a very long time. If they can go out there every day and live on wire that high, I can certainly handle a little digital chin music. So let’s dig in.
Kent Desormeaux. There, see? Just the mere mention of his name brings an immediate, visceral reaction. Has there ever been a jockey with a career that soared and dipped with such vertiginous glee? His triumphs are spectacular, his failures operatic. His post-race interviews are always agonizingly entertaining, and not simply because he swallowed the Cajun version of "Jabberwocky" as a child and has been spitting it out in dribs and drabs ever since. It is because every time he does something grand--and his work aboard Summer Bird in the Belmont Stakes last Saturday was just that--he finds himself dragged back into the recent past, when something inexplicable happened and he is being called to account.
Remember, here’s a guy who won 1,522 races the first three years he rode, then took California by storm and, by 1992, was riding Best Pal, the most famous horse on the circuit. The following year, at the age of 24, he found himself aboard Kotashaan, who became Horse of the Year, but not without one of the greatest rides in the Breeders’ Cup history. This is how I once described it:
“In the 1993 Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita, Kotashaan and Bien Bien were as evenly matched as any two animals could be. Kotashaan had that sudden explosion of speed, while Bien Bien was a grinder, almost impossible to pass. Kent Desormeaux knew he had to get the jump on Bien Bien well before the end, and Chris McCarron knew Desormeaux knew it. On the final turn, McCarron glanced back to check Kotashaan's position. The instant McCarron turned his head forward, Desormeaux pounced. Kotashaan stole the advantage in a heartbeat, and he needed every inch. Bien Bien never gave up but lost by a half length.”
One month later, with the memory of that remarkable display still fresh, Desormeaux misjudged the finish line in the Japan Cup at Tokyo Race Course and stopped riding Kotashaan too soon. It cost him the race, as well as considerable face in the eyes of the critical Japanese racing community. Eight years later he returned to Japan to become the first American jockey to win a Japanese classic event, in the Japanese Oaks. They loved him.
In 2003, Sports Illustrated identified Desormeaux as one of the 50 greatest athletes to come out of Louisiana--No. 48, to be precise, on a list topped by Karl Malone (Eddie Delahoussaye was No. 18). Through the years, Kent's racing injuries have cost him bits and pieces of body parts, including the hearing in one ear. And he's always been at deadly odds with his weight. But over the past year and a half, he has positioned himself with some very strong eastern and Midwestern stables, including the Bill Mott outfit. Never forget it was Mott who gave the capable journeyman Jerry Bailey the mount on Cigar, in November of 1994. Jerry was 37 at the time, and went on to dominate the upper reaches of the game.
Desormeaux is 39. He‘s got just enough time to go up and down the ladder again, reinventing himself at will, even though he‘d prefer to stay put in New York, where he has apparently found something approaching safe haven. But as recently as 2005, the year after his election to the Hall of Fame, Desormeaux was in California and his career was in trouble. His weight was up. He was not healthy. It was October and he was flailing, with fewer than 60 wins for the whole year and not a single mount to look forward to in the '05 Breeders’ Cup at Lone Star Park. This is what he said at the time:
"I'm 35 years old, and I look at Jerry Bailey. I think I'm younger than he was before he went on his tear to reach the heights he has today. If I can get my act together and get my body and weight in shape, I know I have the ability to do what he's done. I just need to have the responsibility."
Unlike the late-blooming Bailey, Desormeaux was never not a star, a true teenage prodigy and three-time Derby winner. Because he has existed so long at the top of the game--in name recognition if nothing else--he‘s always had time on his side.
So he can miss by a frantic, panicked nose winning the Triple Crown with Real Quiet in 1998, eliciting jeers for the effort, and still come back two years later to win the Kentucky Derby on Fusiachi Pegasus with a ride like creamy butter.
Or he can prance through two legs of the 2008 Triple Crown, extolling Big Brown as the greatest horse he ever rode, then be rendered (relatively) speechless after tossing the towel on the same colt in the Belmont Stakes, begging the question, “Who was the second best he ever rode?”
Desormeaux is back on the top again, courtesy of the Belmont Stakes, and nothing says he won't stay there. However, the pilot recommends that all passengers remain seated until the rollercoaster comes to a complete stop.
Kent Desormeaux had won most of the riding titles back east and to introduce him to the Los Angeles fans they had him lead a post parade at Hollywood Park. Right in front of the grandstand the horse bucked him off. Kent jumped up from the ground did a flying leap mount and got the applause of the crowd. I expect he gained a lot of fans that afternoon -- I know for sure he got one.
Several major racing centers "rolled the dice" by installing non-natural surfaces, hoping that it would play like a dirt surface and be safer for the horses. Wrong and wrong. The difference in this surface is that those who installed it, completely wiped out the option to run on dirt. Typically any track with a turf course only runs two or three races a card over the surface, whereas a place like Santa Anita forces the players to have to deal with the new surface 90% of the time. The bottom line is we now have three percieved distinct racing surfaces. Therefore owner opinions will continue to develop similar to what's happening with Rachel Alexandra and Zenyetta. And that's OK, and people need to get over it if they never race against each other. I don't ever recall the court of public opinion debating as to why Miesque never ran in the Met Mile - it was just accepted that grass was that horse's surface. The real crime with the 3rd surface is that it the betting public is rejecting it at a greater rate than the owners. The rate of decline in the handle at "3rd surface" racetracks bear that out. This condition will ultimately be more damaging to the future of the game than the failure of two wonderful horses ever racing against each other.
I was forced to listen to Desormeaux's typical post race blather after the Belmont Stakes. It's always about Kent. It's always about the good things he did to win the race. He was on a horse that picked up the pieces. It was a bizarre race with a very live rail. Horses that ran paths wide of that rail didn't fair as well. Theres a lot of good jockeys out there, but its generally the best horse that wins, not the best jockey. Kent is one of the last guys I'd ride, but I understand the need to write "feel good" stories too. dj
Kent is one of the most over rated riders around, he only tries for trainers who give him lots of mounts, i.e. Mott, but ride for someone with a smaller barn and you get 75% effort, and than to hear his post race dribble, OMG, everytime all you hear, and check for this, is " next time.......he's always apologizing for f**ing up this ride, but next time he'll be on his game. SO glad he's in NY or KY, because after I bet him I always feel like I needed KY for the screwin I just got....I have zero respect for him as a rider or a person, won't miss him when he is done.
'05 Breeders cup was at Belmont. We all make honest mistakes
Nice touch on the Desormeaux history, Jay...but not a topic to raise the response of the Community, apparently. I am a fairly recent visitor and participant in the DRF Community blogs, but I found your style of writing columns and your topics to be both entertainlng and thought provoking. Especially, I was very much moved by your accounting of the Stone Legacy storyline, and the efforts of owner/breeders such as Mary Lou Whitney to provide for the care and well being of her own, even after they've left that operation's hands. I have been surprized at the number of real life "horse people" who visit and participate in this DRF Community (I am a racing enthusiasts only, myself), and I believe that the welfare of racing stock and horse care should be visited regularly on your new blog. I'm sure it will engender some lifely commentary from the good folks that visit these pages.
I remember Kent being face down just feet before the finish line at Hollywood Park getting hoofed in the head after being tossed - it was frightning! I say that to commend his courage which is an extension of his on camera brashness which in the race track translates into audacity (the good kind). Sure he comes up on the wrong side of the tracks but the 80/20 rule is still in his favor. I'll take Kent D. anyday...he's next in line as the greatest currently riding jockey...who else has shinier legacy or a brighter future?!
Welcome to the blogsphere. During the Kentucky Derby Prep season, I enjoyed reading the articles penned by you on the 2009 prep races for three year olds. I was seeking as much information that I could find on the runners to be ready for the Triple Crown Races. Bo-Rail may know horses, but he should have listened to Desormeaux when he commented on Calvin's pontification about winning the Belmont on Mine That Bird. I'd like to hear trainers and jockeys say they have confidence in their runners, but Calvin's was overkill and over confident which lead to the Belmont being a Jockey race instead of a horse race, with Desormeaux winning this round.
Hi Jay! Good luck with your first blog! All I can say is that Kent D. seems to be the shining example of the fact that even at the highest levels, jockeys have form cycles just like the horses they ride. If we could put together Kent D.'s PP's we might actually be able to identify a pattern (I bet Mark Cramer could! :-)
Your blog entries will be one more reason for me to make this site my first place to go at the end of the day. Have always enjoyed your columns, even though the west coast is not my area of concentration. Jockeys. I've seen so many of them over the years burn so brightly and flame out so quickly, not realizing how fleeting their time as riders was to be. They don't get to hang around as fat cats for monster bucks like their major sports cousins. I respect the heck out of all of them.