07/25/2006 12:00AM

New character playing well


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Despite a resume that included more than 4,500 wins, three Eclipse Awards, and a bust in racing's Hall of Fame, jockey Kent Desormeaux this spring felt the need to reinvent himself. So he picked up his tack and his family, and made the cross-country trek from Southern California to New York.

Thus far, Desormeaux couldn't be happier with the results. Coming off a Belmont meet where he won 36 races - good enough for a fifth-place tie in the standings - Desormeaux enters his first full Saratoga meet riding high and full of confidence that he can return to the heights he achieved early in his career.

"I'm just excited things are working out the way I thought they would," Desormeaux said last week in the Belmont Park jockeys' room. "Just the fact I'm riding again - I'm really happy I'm riding six or seven every day. I'm just really happy. I'm having fun again."

Desormeaux, who has won two Kentucky Derbies and rode the favorite for this year's Derby, Sweetnorthernsaint, said he had developed a bad reputation in Southern California as someone who did not want to ride cheap horses, and that left him in the jocks' room too much.

"I was so bored and having to work harder and harder at maintaining my weight because I wasn't riding," Desormeaux said. "What I was riding was good, don't get me wrong. I'd ride two a day and one of them would win. It just wasn't enough. I didn't have enough business.

"I built the wrong character. I couldn't break the mold," Desormeaux added. "I would come by the barn and the guys would say, 'Oh, I don't have one good enough for you to ride.' I said, 'What? I'll ride the hair off a $10,000 claimer if you give me the chance.' So I was trying to break that character. I came to New York to reinvent myself."

Desormeaux began riding in New York in late March when Aqueduct's main track opened. He finished with 13 wins, which was good enough for a third-place tie in the jockey standings. He won his only New York stakes during that meet, the Grade 2 Comely aboard Miraculous Miss.

His work ethic caught the eye of agent Mike Sellito, who parted ways with Mike Smith to take over Desormeaux's book in mid-June.

"He's a great guy to work for," Sellito said. "He's a workaholic in the mornings. There's mornings he worked eight or nine horses. That's unheard of for a Hall of Fame jockey."

Sellito was not the only one to notice a change in Desormeaux. Garrett Gomez, who has ridden in Southern California the past few years with Desormeaux, also sees it.

"His attitude's changed a little bit," said Gomez, who is also riding his first Saratoga meet. "It seems like he's a little more serious, a little more focused and stuff like that. It's good to see. Maybe he just needed a change, I don't know."

Bobby Frankel, a Hall of Fame trainer, said he wasn't using Desormeaux out West. He has used him on several horses here, including three that won. Frankel named Desormeaux on two live runners for Wednesday's opening-day card, including the Grade 1 winner I'm the Tiger.

"He's a good rider," Frankel said. "Horses run for him, for sure. He's working hard now. He's a good athlete, he takes care of himself, he's still going."

Jimmy Jerkens has used Desormeaux a bit, and likes his aggressiveness. Jerkens will use Desormeaux on Oh So Awesome, a longshot in Saturday's $500,000 Jim Dandy.

"He makes things happen," Jerkens said.

Sellito admits that Desormeaux's stakes business is lacking, but is pleased with his day-to-day business. Desormeaux rode winners for 21 different trainers at Belmont. Desormeaux had seven calls on Wednesday and five on Thursday and hopes that support continues throughout the meet.

"I'm hopeful to make it back to the top tier [of] riders, and having a good Saratoga meet could go a long way toward doing that," Desormeaux said.

Desormeaux said that he is still battling his weight, though it's not for a lack of work.

"It's got everything to do with age and the body, and I thought the food was good in California, but man, it's better here," Desormeaux said. "Even the mom-and-pop Italian shop on the corner; that food is 100 miles better. Italian food here is better than it is in Italy."