06/29/2003 11:00PM

5,700-mile commute all in a day's work


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Kent Desormeaux began his work day last Sunday at Hanshin Racecourse, a casino-horse racing megaplex in the town of Hyogo, located on the east coast of the main island of Japan, halfway between the major cities of Osaka and Kobe, and about 5,700 miles from the paddock at Hollywood Park

There, before an estimated crowd of nearly 80,000, Desormeaux rode defending Japanese horse of the year Symboli Kris S. to a fifth-place finish among a field of 17 in the $2.1 million Takarazuka Kinen, a clockwise race of 2,200 meters (about 1 3/8 miles) that ranks among the country's most prestigious events for older horses.

A few hours later, Desormeaux was snoozing in a first-class seat, flying eastward to California in open defiance of the clock. Back-tracking over the international dateline, he arrived at Hollywood Park in plenty time to ride the promising colt Just Wonder to victory in the $184,550 Cinema Handicap, before a live crowd of 8,901.

(For added perspective, consider the fact that $225 million was bet in Japan on just the Takarazuka Kinen. Hollywood Park handled $12.3 million on all nine of its Sunday races.)

By Monday morning Desormeaux was at Santa Anita, working horses for Bob Baffert. When reached at the end of his chores, he seemed eerily fresh, as if such intercontinental commutes were par for the course. He was, however, having a little trouble accepting the fact that both "yesterday" and "Sunday" referred to the same day. In Kent's case, Sunday lasted about 36 hours.

"It's just like laying down in bed for me," a disgustingly well-rested Desormeaux said. "The flight is 11 hours. I have a light meal, a couple Tylenol PMs, and I can curl up sideways and sleep for nine hours. I don't wake up until the wheels shake me up and let me know that we've arrived."

Good thing, because Desormeaux had to be on his toes in the Cinema. Just Wonder, a son of French Derby winner Hernando, found himself at the back of a scrambling pack through most of the nine furlongs on firm turf before shifting wide and kicking to the front. Just Wonder's move blew everyone out of the water, with the exception of the persistent runner-up, Bis Repetitas, who was beaten just three-quarters of a length.

So Desormeaux ended his Sunday with two continents, two winners (he went 1 for 7 at Hanshin), and a reason to be hopeful that Just Wonder will continue to improve for Laura de Seroux as the American grass season for 3-year-olds gets into full swing.

Before that, however, Desormeaux must finish his contractual commitments in Japan, which includes one more weekend's worth of riding. With the exception of two brief trips back to California, Desormeaux has spent the last two months in Japan, riding for leading Japanese trainer Kazuo Fujisawa, whose stable includes Symboli Kris S.

Desormeaux is no stranger in Japan. His near-miss aboard Kotashaan in the 1993 Japan Cup gave him valuable exposure but also resulted in a stiff fine for misjudging the finish line. Since then, he has rarely put a foot wrong. In 2000, he achieved cult status as the regular rider of the Japanese-owned Kentucky Derby winner Fusiachi Pegasus. In 2001, Desormeaux became the first "gaijin" rider - foreigner, that is - to win a Japanese classic race when he took the Japanese Oaks with Lady Pistol.

For the past two years, Desormeaux has interrupted his American season with a stint in Japan, where he has now won more than 50 races. For all the business he loses back in the States, he harbors no regrets.

"I'd much prefer to be here at home," Desormeaux said. "And by that I mean no offense to my Japanese friends. But it is impossible for me not to go to Japan, because I do so well financially.

"Basically, I'm riding for the Bobby Frankel-Bob Baffert of Japan," Desormeaux said, referring to Fujisawa. "He gives me a stacked hand, so to speak. The first weekend I show up, I'll ride a couple of winners for this powerful stable, and everyone says, 'Desormeaux is back.' His horses make me look like a champion."

So the money is good, the racing is good, and with just a couple of programs a week, the weight-watching Desormeaux does not have to spend all of his time reducing. His wife, Sonia, and sons Joshua and Jacob make the Japan trip as well, which might be the biggest perk of all.

The Desormeaux family lives in an apartment in the town of Tsuchiura, north of Tokyo and just a 20-minute drive from Miho training center, the Newmarket of major Japanese racing.

"Sonia and I have come to agree that home is where you hang your hat," Desormeaux said. "We travel around Japan quite a bit, riding every weekend. When we get back to our little apartment - which is about the size of our living room here - we'll say, 'man, it's good to be home.' "

He wasn't kidding. Tsuchiura reminds Desormeaux of nothing less than his birthplace, the tiny Louisiana town of Maurice.

"I'm not kidding," he said. "It's hot. It's humid. And the big city is a long ways away. All they do around there is fish and grow rice. I went halfway around the world and found another Maurice."