02/17/2006 12:00AM

Desormeaux to move to East Coast

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Barbaro, winner of the Holy Bull on Feb. 4, will go straight to the $1 million Florida Derby on April 1 for his final Kentucky Derby prep.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, a mainstay on the West Coast through most of his career, has decided to leave California and move his tack to the East Coast, beginning with a brief stay at Gulfstream Park toward the end of March.

Desormeaux, 35, said the balance of power in horse racing has shifted from the West Coast to the East in recent years, and believes it would be in his best interests to ride in the East. As a result, he plans to take up permanent residence in New York once he leaves Gulfstream, shortly after the Florida Derby on April 1.

"I really believe the pendulum has switched to the East," Desormeaux said. "When I moved to California they had the best racing in the world, but right now there are way more opportunities and much more money available in the East, and if I want to be a champion jockey I have to use my skills where those opportunities are most readily available."

Desormeaux was originally planning to make the move during the first week in March, but he said he has decided to honor a number of riding commitments in California over the next month.

"I have commitments to fulfill to people I have been friends with in California forever," said Desormeaux. "But the writing is on the wall here as far as my career is concerned. Business is slow and I'm still young and way too hungry for the top to have that happen."

Desormeaux said part of his decision to switch his tack to New York was because of the recent retirement of jockey Jerry Bailey.

"I realize there are some very good riders in New York, like Johnny Velazquez, Edgar Prado, and several others, but with Jerry gone, there is a void there, and I'm hoping I can come in and achieve the kind of business my status deserves," said Desormeaux, who, with Bailey gone, would be the only Hall of Fame jockey riding regularly in New York.

Desormeaux, who said he tacks 115 pounds "comfortably," will turn his book over to veteran agent Steve Adika when he arrives in Florida.

"I look at the trip to Florida as a meet-and-greet type of deal, to let people know I'm really coming and as a prelude to heading up to Aqueduct in April," said Desormeaux. "I need a freshening; this change should be invigorating for me and I'm really looking forward to making the move."

Desormeaux rode in the East early in his career, winning the Eclipse Award for apprentice jockey in 1987 while riding in Maryland.

Barbaro to skip Fountain of Youth

Trainer Michael Matz confirmed Friday that he plans to skip the Fountain of Youth with Barbaro and instead will give the undefeated 3-year-old colt his final Kentucky Derby prep in the $1 million Florida Derby here on April 1.

"The way it stands now, we'll wait for the Florida Derby," said Matz. "His races have been scheduled five and six weeks apart all the time; he's already had two races at a mile and one-eighth, and I felt that if, God willing, we make it to the Kentucky Derby, I'd like to go in with the freshest horse possible."

Matz said he discussed the situation with jockey Edgar Prado before making his final decision.

"I spoke with Edgar and said, 'If you feel like he needs the experience, let me know,' and he agreed he'd rather go in with a fresh horse," said Matz. "So many horses this time of year are trying to play catch-up, and I feel like we're lucky to be in the spot we're in. I'm new at this thing, but I just feel it's the best way to go."

Barbaro is perfect in four starts, having won his first three outings on turf before switching to the main track to win the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes over a sloppy strip here on Feb. 4.

Ward has high hopes for Strong Contender

One trainer playing catch-up with a Kentucky Derby hopeful but who doesn't seem the least bit concerned is John Ward, who sent out Strong Contender to work five furlongs in 59.40 seconds under jockey Shaun Bridgmohan on Friday.

Strong Contender rallied to win his only start by 3 3/4 lengths going six furlongs last August at Arlington Park. A son of Maria's Mon, Strong Contender completed his final eighth in 11 seconds before galloping out a mile in 1:41 and change during Friday's impressive work.

"The best part about him is now, when pulling up," Ward said, while watching Strong Contender finally come to a halt near the half-mile pole. "He pulls up after a work like he never did anything."

Ward said he had to stop on Strong Contender after the colt came up with a small fracture line in a back cannon bone after his maiden win.

"It was a big-horse problem, so we just waited for it to heal," said Ward. "He hasn't missed a beat, he's about ready to run, and we have high hopes for him. Hopefully, if he can dance all the dances, we can get him to the Wood or Blue Grass and then make it to the Kentucky Derby."

* The six-furlong track record was eclipsed for the second time this winter when Tiger covered the distance in 1:08.46 while winning a first-level allowance race on Thursday. He beat the old mark of 1:08.50 set by Gaff on Jan. 7.