In March, 1986, when Kent Desormeaux was just 16, he approached trainer Attaway Darbonne at Evangeline Downs in Lafayette, La., and asked him to sign his jockey's license application. Desormeaux had been galloping and working Darbonne's horses at the track for about a year. He was ready to be a genuine, certified jockey. Darbonne, a crusty gent who has been in the horse business for most of his 54 years, looked down at the five-foot-tall, 85-pound Cajun teenager and solemnly asked, "Son, do you lie?" Kent replied with equal solemnity, "No, sir."
Attaway: Do you cheat?
Kent: No, sir.
Attaway: Well, do you steal, drink or smoke?
Kent: No, sir.
"Then what the hell do you want to be a jockey for?" Darbonne thundered. With that, he laughed and signed the kid's license.
The rest, as they say, is history—albeit in the making—because Desormeaux, now 5'2" and 102 pounds, is the leading apprentice jockey in the U.S. He is also the leader among all U.S. riders in races won, with 242, and has more than $2 million in purses to his credit. On June 14 he won his 11th stakes race, passing the apprentice stakes record of 10 set in 1977 by wunderbug Steve Cauthen.
Desormeaux possesses all the qualities of a fine jockey: strength, aggressiveness, confidence, brains and a good agent, Gene Short. Short had gone to Evangeline in August, 1986, to scout a hot young jockey prospect he knew only as Pee Wee. "I was watching the races and here comes Kent down the lane," says Short. "He splits horses twice, switches sticks about four times from the 16th pole, wins and pays $99." Short turned to the guy standing next to him and said, "Well, I came down to see some jock named Pee Wee, but I'd rather talk to this kid." The man said, "That is Pee Wee."
That night, Desormeaux agreed to have Short represent him. A week later the kid had moved up a notch to Louisiana Downs, where he rode 13 winners in five weeks. Then it was on to Pimlico and Laurel in Maryland. Last Thursday, when the season at Pimlico resumed, Desormeaux rode nine of 10 races, won three, and placed three times.
Not bad for a young man from Maurice, La. (pop. 500), who started out riding at bush tracks. But that wasn't until he was 12 years old. Before that, Kent wanted to be a basketball player.
"I used to cry at night 'cause I was so small," says Desormeaux. "I used to pray to God to make me tall." Now he prays to stay small. Still, he played point guard for the North Vermilion High School Patriots, frequently starting. "I could shoot decent," he says, "but my favorite thing was stealing the ball."
Pee Wee, believe it or not, also played quarterback for the Patriots. "They used to laugh at me because I was so small," he says. "My teammates had to stay down so I could see over the line."
Desormeaux was four when he first sat on a horse, and eight years later he was competing in the bushes. His father, Harris, ran a small racetrack called Acadiana, near Maurice, and Kent's race-riding education began on quarter horses.
Every Sunday, until he was 16, Desormeaux rode from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., in as many as 15 races a day, making $20 to $25 for each winner. The hell-for-leather racing made him fearless. He learned how to break fast from the gate, whipping, driving and remaining undaunted even while another jock tried to put him over the rail. It was quintessential Cajun racing, and Kent thrived on it.
Riding the Maryland circuit, Desormeaux has learned to contend with hostile fans as easily as he handles horses. After he lost the final race last Thursday, a drunken bettor berated him as he walked to the jocks' room. Desormeaux just smiled and dismissed him with a wave. Then he yelled, "Hey, why don't you go have another beer?"
On Aug. 15, the Cajun kid will lose his five-pound apprentice weight allowance, and whether he can handle that with the same panache remains to be seen. Business will tail off, as it always does when a kid loses his bug and the trainers start giving their horses to the new apprentices.
But Desormeaux is one bug who doesn't plan to end up on the windshield of life. When asked which race he would like to win more than any other, he promptly replied, "The Triple Crown." Heck, why settle just for the Kentucky Derby? "I'm never satisfied," he says. "I want it all. I want it, and I'll work for it. I'll better myself until I get it."