06/05/2008 12:00AM

After 10 years, another shot for Desormeaux


ELMONT. N.Y. - By now anyone paying the slightest bit of attention will understand that Kent Desormeaux has been there before, on the brink of a Triple Crown, with the sports world breathing down his neck and wondering how it all will turn out.

At the age of 28, Desormeaux was in the hot seat in 1998 when the leggy bay colt Real Quiet won the Derby, then the Preakness, then lost the Belmont Stakes by a nose with the Triple Crown on the line. A defeat by such a narrow measure of time and space tends to send fingers pointing in several directions - most of them at the jockey - in search of a viable scapegoat. Desormeaux has wrestled with that result for years.

But for a jockey who plays the game in Desormeaux's league, this should be business as usual. A teenage prodigy turned Hall of Fame journeyman, guys like Kent are built for the big moments, both good and grim. Grand as it could be, a Triple Crown triumph will not heal the lingering wound of his tough loss in the same spot 10 years ago with Real Quiet. Nor would it erase the memory of Desormeaux's costly error in 1993 when he misjudged the finish line in one of the world's most prestigious events.

Neither could a Triple Crown compete, in terms of physical drama, with the horrific accident in December of 1992 at Hollywood Park that fractured his skull and robbed him of the hearing in his right ear. And while victory would be sweet, and the taste would certainly linger long into the twilight of his career, success in the Belmont on Saturday would hardly replace the years of struggle with drastic weight control and attendant health risks that a natural 130-pounder like Desormeaux has managed to survive.

Great jockeys are known for their greatest moments aboard great horses. Desormeaux has had more than his share. When he calls Big Brown the best he's ever ridden, the context includes not only Real Quiet but other 3-year-olds like Fusaichi Pegasus, Free House, and Afternoon Deelites, such top older horses as Kotashaan, Best Pal, and Formal Gold, and such remarkable fillies and mares as Toussaud, Kostroma, Possibly Perfect, and Honest Lady.

None of them ever gave Desormeaux easier rides for the big money than did Big Brown in the Derby and the Preakness, which is why neither race tells us anything about how Desormeaux responds under the ultimate weight of performance pressure. Losses - like that 1998 Belmont - tell as much about a rider as the wins, so in that spirit Desormeaux sat down in the Belmont jocks' room this week to rehash some of his greatest hits . . . and misses.

This reporter's all-time favorite Desormeaux move was in the 1993 Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita Park, aboard favored Kotashaan, specifically on the turn for home, when Kotashaan was trailing just behind and to the outside of arch-rival Bien Bien, ridden by Chris McCarron.

Both Desormeaux and McCarron were deft practitioners of the art of the quick peek, to check the whereabouts of the competition. On this day, at that particular moment, McCarron glanced over his right shoulder to account for Kotashaan. The instant McCarron turned his head forward, Desormeaux pounced, and in the next second, when McCarron peeked again, Kotashaan was alongside and commencing his sprint for home. Since Kotashaan was more explosive compared to the steady Bien Bien, that quick move between McCarron's peeks made the difference. Desormeaux won by a half-length.

"We do that every day," Desormeaux said. "You don't want someone to catch you with that momentum change. That's certainly one of my ploys."

Three weeks later, Kotashaan finished second in the Japan Cup, losing by 1 1/4 lengths in a noble effort that was compromised by a blatant pilot error.

"Probably my most embarrassing moment," Desormeaux conceded. "On that day I had my head buried, driving at the horse on the lead. I saw a big box that looked like the post at the wire, and I stood up. The instant that happened, I got down and got back to work. The third and fourth horses passed me, but Kotashaan came back and got them."

We all find ways to live with our mistakes. In the case of the Japan Cup, after which he was fined and excoriated in the local press, Desormeaux has fashioned a rationalization that works for him.

"We were probably going to finish second anyway, but we didn't need any excuses," Desormeaux said. "In the end, it ended up working in our favor, because I got the blame for not winning the race, and he ended up Horse of the Year."

Two years later, Desormeaux won his second Breeders' Cup race, taking the 1995 Sprint over a muddy Belmont main track with the 5-year-old mare Desert Stormer. They beat Mr. Greeley and Julie Krone by a quarter of a length.

"Mother Nature got me that one," Desormeaux insisted. "I was very fortunate to be the one to occupy the tractor rut that day. Everybody knew about it, but I just had the horse to take advantage. She broke good and I went straight for it. For Julie to come around me and pass me, she had to get in the thick of the mud. That was the difference."

In the canon of dramatic Desormeaux moments, the 1997 Preakness Stakes looms large. Riding Free House, Desormeaux lost by the shortest of heartbreaking heads to Silver Charm.

"I was the absolute stone winner if Captain Bodgit hadn't come flying on the outside," Desormeaux said. "Free House and Silver Charm had traveled three-sixteenths of a mile with the same exact separation, and Silver Charm had accepted defeat. Then all of a sudden, Silver Charm makes this last lunge. Where did that come from? He was responding to Captain Bodgit on the outside. I knew right away what happened, and I couldn't do anything about it. I was very proud of that ride."

Desormeaux does not say the same of his Belmont performance that cost Real Quiet the Triple Crown. For the past three weeks, he has been forced to rehash that race, over and over, and he has done so with soul-bearing detail, expounding on how he moved too fast, too soon and still lost to Victory Gallop in only in the final stride.

What he added was the fact that he also put the Triple Crown "winner" in jeopardy of being disqualified by the stewards on an interference call.

"My depth perception told me that if I didn't hinder that run coming at me, I was going to get beat," he said. "I overdid it. I tried too hard. If I don't get in his way a little bit, he would have probably beat me a half a length. In hindsight, I should have let him catch me. If Real Quiet would have seen him, he would have gone after and got him, because he was not tired."

In a feeble attempt to quell speculation, Belmont's stewards issued a press release the following day indicating they would not have found cause to have disqualified Real Quiet, had he won the photo. If that had happened, and given Desormeaux's honest reflection, such a Triple Crown winner would have been saddled with an asterisk as big as Barry Bonds.

Life offers some amazing second chances. If Big Brown comes through, here's hoping he hits the wire clean and true, carrying only his grateful rider and a deserving piece of history.