Updated on 09/15/2011 12:37PM

Return trip for a pair of jockeys

Benoit & Associates
Desormeaux winning his 4,000th career race in January in Santa Anita. He recently returned from a three-month

DEL MAR, Calif. - Kent Desormeaux did not even allow himself to be named on mounts the last two days at Hollywood Park. He wanted to get to Del Mar early, planting seeds of encouragement in the stables here, because, as he admits, "I've got a tough row to hoe."

Desormeaux rode in Japan for most of the past three months. With the exception of two trips home to ride Astra in stakes races at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, he was gone. Now he has returned, hoping, he said, "that the enthusiasm I have at being a jockey again will be displayed in my riding.

"I know I've depleted my stable, but hopefully the horsemen will want to ride the jock who has the most fun being a jockey, because that will be me," said Desormeaux, who is now represented by jockey agent Tom Knust, the former racing secretary here.

Both Desormeaux and jockey Corey Nakatani are trying to revive careers that caused them to leave this circuit in recent months. Desormeaux, who won the 2000 Kentucky Derby with Fusaichi Pegasus, went to Japan because, he said, "my Kentucky Derby opportunities were null and void" this spring. In addition, the weekend-only racing schedule in Tokyo afforded Desormeaux more time to spend with his two sons, including 2-year-old Jacob, who was born deaf. But Desormeaux knew that the trip to Japan was only temporary. He always intended to come back to Southern California for Del Mar.

Nakatani, by contrast, went to Kentucky this spring unsure of where he would turn next. His business had fallen off in Southern California, and he had no serious Derby prospects. When jockey agent Ron Ebanks, out of work since Shane Sellers injured his knee, asked Nakatani if wanted to come to Keeneland, Nakatani headed to Kentucky.

In doing so, Nakatani picked up the mount on A P Valentine for the Kentucky Derby, but their rough trip mirrored Nakatani's tumultuous spring.

After considering a move to New York, Nakatani decided to return to California, where his wife and kids live. He rode the last two-thirds of the Hollywood Park meeting, but did not crack the top 10.

"I'm home for good," Nakatani said. "I wanted to end up with a good horse for the Derby, and I did. Then I played it by ear, whether to go to New York or come here. Home is home." Nakatani has been reunited with his longtime agent, Bob Meldahl, who also works for Laffit Pincay Jr.

Desormeaux, 31, and Nakatani, 30, have had strangely parallel careers in recent years. Desormeaux was the leading rider at Del Mar in 1992 and 1993, Nakatani in 1994. Desormeaux won again in 1997. Nakatani won in 1998. Desormeaux was injured in a spill on the turf course here in 1999. Nakatani went down hard on the turf course here last summer, in a gruesome accident with the promising filly Candace in Paris. Last year, Nakatani rode 888 races nationally, Desormeaux 887, and Nakatani won 185 races to Desormeaux's 177.

Both are natural athletes. Desormeaux is the best basketball player in the jockeys' room, Nakatani the best golfer. Both have had contentious relationships with trainers - Desormeaux has been perceived at times as fragile and flighty, Nakatani cantankerous and uncouth - and seemingly have to prove themselves anew each year.

How will they be received this time around? So far, business is slow. Nakatani had four mounts scheduled for Wednesday's opening-day card, Desormeaux two. And Nakatani has two mounts Thursday, Desormeaux just one. A tipoff as to how good their meets will be could be reflected on the turf. When both are on, they are among the best at negotiating this tight, tricky course.

"If I'm given a chance, I'll have some fun," Nakatani said. "It's taken a year for me to get healthy from last year's spill. At least that's people's perception. I'm going to go around to the barns every day, trying to ride the best horse in every race."

Desormeaux seemed remarkably fresh after returning last weekend from Japan. His lightness of being could be attributed to his success in Japan, and the progress being made by his youngest son.

"It was very nice being a desired commodity," Desormeaux said of his reception in Japan. "The fans were amazing. It's a very humbling experience to have 200,000 people chanting your name. I looked at it as a working vacation, a freshening, a chance to get in a good frame of mind, and fortunately I was very successful. I had no idea my future was now in Japan."

As for his son Jacob, who had surgery five months ago to activate a cochlear implant, Desormeaux said his son's progress has been a relief to him, wife Sonia, and their oldest son, Joshua.

"The last year was very tiring. We had to prioritize Jacob's needs. Now that he can hear, it's a load off our shoulders," Desormeaux said. "He hears. When we tell him to get his shoes, he gets them. He can say about 10 or 15 words, and last week he started putting two words together, like 'more apple.' He's 2, but he's just five months old, as far as the hearing world goes."

Because of that, Desormeaux said he can better focus on his occupation.

"I'm excited to be back," he said.

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