10/14/2001 11:00PM

Desormeaux a man on move


ARCADIA, Calif. - Never underestimate the motivational power of real estate. Kent Desormeaux, winner of the Oak Tree Derby and the Goodwood Handicap on successive weekends at Santa Anita, is riding like a man paying for a new piece of property, which he is.

And while anyone else who had moved barely two weeks ago would be exhausted from hauling boxes, unpacking record collections, or pushing that 300-pound armoire "just a little bit more to the right," Desormeaux seems invigorated. Leave it to Kent to concoct an image that suits his new surroundings.

"I feel like I've finally placed myself in a trophy," he said, "instead of having so many trophies in a lesser home."

No one is more entertaining than Desormeaux when he gets on a verbal roll. And no one can articulate the details of his craft quite like Kent, who knows precisely why he does whatever he does at each and every point of a race, whether it works or not.

His ride aboard the former European colt No Slip in the Oak Tree Derby last Saturday was a thriller. Then on Sunday, he nearly stole the Harold Ramser Handicap with the longshot Walts Wharf. Combine that with his Goodwood upset aboard Freedom Crest and four more winners over the weekend, and you have the makings of a good, old-fashioned Desormeaux resurrection.

Usually, there is only one resurrection to a customer. At the age of 31, Desormeaux seems to be drawing from a lifetime supply. There was his rise and fall and rise again in the mid-1990's, culminated by his 1998 Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories aboard Real Quiet. Then came another business crash, followed by another glorious rebirth on the wings of Fusaichi Pegasus in the 2000 Derby.

Desormeaux took fate into his own hands earlier this year and uprooted his family to Japan for a lucrative mini-season of competition. He made a ton of money and thousands of fans, while spending more time than ever before with his wife, Sonia, and sons Josh and Jake.

The gamble had a price. When Desormeaux returned to California in July, it took most of the Del Mar meet to build any head of steam. The past two weeks have been more typical of a career than includes more than 4,000 winners and three Eclipse Awards.

"I hope it's back to business as usual," Desormeaux said. "I certainly am attempting to be out there, and show the smiling fresh face that has returned from Japan. I have no desire to be a jockey that's just hanging around the colony. It's my desire to be number one."

Perhaps more than any other top rider, Desormeaux wears his technique on his sleeve. He tries things on horseback that may look strange, or go against the grain.

But, more often than not, they work. His ride aboard No Slip was a perfect example.

Far back on a slow pace, Desormeaux and his colt came flying in the final 100 yards to beat Laffit Pincay and Sligo Bay by the thinnest possible nose. The contrast in finishing styles was striking. Pincay was coiling and uncoiling in his familiar humpbacked profile, like a powerful spring attached to the back of the animal. Then there was Desormeaux, on the outside, arms flailing and reins flapping, "tossing salad" to beat the band. He explained.

"For me, it works better than the whip," Kent began. "It gets a horse to find more, deep down. If you think about lifting a dumbbell, the first thing you do is grit your teeth and wince with strain. Horses are the same. They bite their teeth, and when they become fatigued, the first thing they do is let go and spit the bit.

"I encourage them by giving the bit a light tug and twirling it in their mouth, enticing them to chomp back down on the bridle and take it forward. At the same time, my right hand is behind flashed right beside their eye. So I'm chasing them forward, trying to get them to bite the bridle."

The Desormeaux comeback could be complete if he makes an impact on Breeders' Cup Day, Oct. 27, at Belmont Park. He is looking forward to riding Freedom Crest against the best the world can muster in the $4 million Classic. And he is particularly excited about his mount in the $1 million Juvenile.

"This will be a very special year," he said. "I'm going to win the Juvenile for my brother. How about that?"

That would be fine by Keith Desormeaux, the brother in question, and trainer of French Assault. He is a son of French Deputy, out of a granddaughter of Six Crowns, who has run six times and won twice, including a stakes at Retama Park. In his most recent start, French Assault was second in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile.

"I rode him at Turfway," Kent said. "He was a very good second in my eyes. I didn't know the colt, and I think I would have won the race had I been on him before."

So what Desormeaux is saying, with a smile and flash of his dark brown eyes, is that French Assault is going to beat Officer, everyone else's best bet of the day.

"Yes, he will," Desormeaux replied. And for a second, you almost believed him.