04/24/2008 12:00AM

Rejuvenated Desormeaux fueled by Derby


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Kent Desormeaux said he remembers his first Kentucky Derby ride "like it was yesterday." Eighteen years old and riding a longshot named Purdue King in the 1988 running, Desormeaux was in danger of finishing last before he took drastic action.

"I almost dropped somebody," he recalled. "If you go back and watch the tape, way in the back, I'm coming over on another horse coming up the rail. It was horrible, but I sure didn't want to get embarrassed by running last in my first Derby."

To his everlasting relief, Desormeaux guided Purdue King to a 16th-place finish, beating only Sea Trek in a race otherwise remembered for Winning Colors becoming the third filly to win the Derby while also giving D. Wayne Lukas his first of four Derby wins.

Two decades, two Derby victories, and one Hall of Fame induction later, Desormeaux still has that competitive fire aglow. Riding like someone far younger than 38, with a fearless, aggressive, and calculating style that has made him a star wherever he has ridden, Desormeaux once again is on top of the racing world. He padded his already crowded resume by being the leading rider for the first time at the recent Keeneland meet, and he will begin the Churchill Downs spring meet Saturday with a sense of great anticipation, knowing he has the mount on Big Brown, the favorite for the 134th Derby on May 3.

"I'm having way too much fun," he said. "People ask me about when I might retire, and I say I'm not even thinking about it. I'm enjoying this game way too much."

For all his youthful looks and boyish enthusiasm, it seems hard to believe that Desormeaux has become a dean of Derby riders. Among active jockeys, his Derby triumphs aboard Real Quiet (1998) and Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) are tops, while only two others, Alex Solis (15) and Mike Smith (14), can surpass or match his 14 previous Derby rides.

Yet it is the present and future, and not the past, that gets Desormeaux excited about riding racehorses. More specifically, the prospect of winning a third Derby is what has him eagerly awaiting the gates clanging open for the 10th race next Saturday at Churchill. Desormeaux said he is psyching himself up for riding Big Brown, the colt he called "possibly the best horse I've ever ridden" after winning the March 29 Florida Derby by five lengths.

"Even while I'm walking around daydreaming, I'm putting myself in different situations in the Derby, recognizing the other horses I'm going to be involved with, ready to make that instinctual reaction that I'm going to have to make," he said.

Wanting to win the Derby again "is a constant," he added. "It's one of the reasons I'm still riding, without a doubt. Getting a taste of winning the Derby makes you long for it even more. It's that strong that it'll keep a guy in the game."

Desormeaux said earlier this month that he intended to ride at Churchill through the end of the meet on July 6. However, he said he and his wife, Sonia, were unable to make suitable arrangements to move her and their two sons, Joshua and Jacob, to Louisville for such a short time frame. The family lives in Garden City, N.Y., from where Desormeaux will ride at Belmont Park before moving on to Saratoga.

Before Keeneland, Desormeaux rode this winter at Gulfstream Park.

"Since Dec. 27, I've slept in my own bed two nights," he said. "I want to be the premier jockey, but before that I have to be A-number-one for the kids."

Clearly, Desormeaux would like nothing more than to go home and tell the kids he has become just the eighth jockey in Derby history to win the race three or more times.

Big Brown, he said, "is the real deal. He's got a couple hurdles to jump, but I think he'll clear them."