06/11/2009 12:00PM

Meaux-mentum

Email

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.