04/02/2003 12:00AM

Some time in the Kentucky sun

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Kent Desormeaux doesn't know exactly when he started getting the reputation of being a spoiled jockey who handpicks his spots.

All he knows is that the label is unfair. Desormeaux can't believe that anyone at age 33 would want to take it easy - especially himself.

"I'm too young to be riding a couple a day," he said.

Partly as a means of reinvigorating a riding career that has dipped to an unsatisfactory level - at least by his lofty standards - Desormeaux has made a temporary move from Southern California to Kentucky for a four-week stay. With only a few exceptions, he will ride every day at Keeneland Race Course, which begins a three-week meet Friday, then proceed to Churchill Downs to ride Kentucky Derby week.

His modest goal at Keeneland is none other than this: To be the leading rider.

"Anyone who knows me, they'd know I'm not coming over there to be second," Desormeaux said earlier this week from his California home. "Maybe I have been a little spoiled, but I want to show people that that's not me. I'd love to ride every race every day. I don't really want to ride some 40-1 shot in a $10,000 claiming race, but if I do, I'll be out there riding my heart out, giving you a Kentucky Derby ride."

Indeed, ever since Desormeaux was a young boy growing up with his five siblings in rural Louisiana, he has carried around an uncommon desire to be the best. In 1989, when he was just a few years into his career and living in Columbia, Md., he would ride afternoons at Laurel or Pimlico, then commute at night to tracks such as Garden State or Penn National. He won an astounding 598 races that year, a record that still stands - and could remain for many more years.

It was a demanding schedule, and although Desormeaux's life has changed dramatically since then - he now has a wife, two sons, and outside business interests in California - at least one constant has remained: his passion for riding. He is intent on putting that passion on full display during the next few weeks in Kentucky.

"I'm always ready," he said.

Desormeaux is represented by agent Tom Knust, the former racing secretary at Santa Anita and Del Mar. An agent-rider team new to any circuit typically starts off at an inherent disadvantage - the opposition has far more connections with local horsemen - but Desormeaux is hoping that his name recognition and a quick start will provide sufficient momentum. With so many California trainers having brought horses to Keeneland - including Neil Drysdale, Bob Hess Jr., and Chris Paasch - Desormeaux already has some ready-made business.

"We're going to bang on the trainers' doors, but I've learned through my career that horsemen either want to ride you or they don't," he said.

He said his decision to ride the entire meet stemmed partly from what occurred here last fall, "when I was riding every weekend at Keeneland, then flying back to ride Wednesdays and Thursdays at Santa Anita. I'd fly back to ride a Friday at Keeneland, and I thought, 'This is kind of dumb.' "

But he also said riding at Keeneland provides a welcome break from the rut in which he finds himself back home. Although Desormeaux has been a leading rider on many occasions since leaving Maryland for California in 1990, he is not even in the top 10 in the latest Santa Anita standings.

"This will be a change of pace and a chance to reenergize," he said.

Although New York-based riders such as Jerry Bailey and Jose Santos long have made the Keeneland spring meet (but not the fall one) a regular stop on their annual circuits, there are fewer California-based riders doing the same. Two springs ago, longtime California regular Corey Nakatani competed on a daily basis at Keeneland, and the results were encouraging: He won 16 races from 80 mounts, good for third in the standings behind Pat Day and Bailey.

Still, Desormeaux is aware that the jockey colony at Keeneland this spring is exceptionally deep.

Besides Day, who has won a record 20

riding crowns at Keeneland, there also is Robby Albarado, who led all riders here last spring and most recently topped the standings at the long Fair Grounds meet. There is Bailey, the Hall of Famer who already has a good amount of business lined up with trainers Bobby Frankel, Todd Pletcher, and others. There is Shane Sellers, a perennial favorite among Kentucky horsemen and an eight-time Keeneland champion. And then there is Santos, who typically rides top grass horses, and Jason Lumpkins, who comes off a record-setting winter at Turfway Park, and Mark Guidry and Cornelio Velasquez, both of whom enjoyed outstanding meets at Gulfstream Park.

Whatever unfolds, Desormeaux hopes to make the best of it. After riding here Friday, he will return to Santa Anita to ride Saturday and Sunday. But after that, he will be a Kentucky kind of guy for a while.

"My wife and kids are coming for the middle week of Keeneland," said Desormeaux. "I'm looking forward to it. I think I've got a little something to prove, and I'll be doing all I can to show the people back there how much I want it."

Kent Desormeaux

AGE: 33.

BIRTHPLACE: Maurice, La.

RESIDENCE: La Canada, Calif.

FAMILY: Wife, Sonya; sons, Joshua and Jacob.

FIRST WIN: July 13, 1986, aboard Miss Tavern at Evangeline Downs.

CAREER WINS: 4,308 from 21,491 mounts (through Tuesday).

CAREER EARNINGS: $161,529,558 (through Tuesday).

BIGGEST VICTORIES: 1998 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Real Quiet; 2000 Kentucky Derby, Fusaichi Pegasus; 1993 Breeders' Cup Turf, Kotashaan; 1995 Breeders' Cup Sprint, Desert Stormer.

ECLIPSE AWARDS: 1987, apprentice jockey; 1989 and 1992, jockey.

OTHER ACHIEVEMENTS: August 1997, became youngest jockey (27) to surpass $100 million in career earnings; 1993, won George Woolf Award; holds the North American record for most wins in a year (598 in 1989).