The fall still haunts him. Jockey Kent Desormeaux, aboard a 3-year-old gelding named Judge Hammer, was cruising to victory in a claiming race at Hollywood Park last Dec. 11 when the horse inexplicably ducked and threw him just before the finish. "Tumbling, falling, the ground," is all Desormeaux remembers now. "And then nothing."
He remembers nothing about being kicked in the head by a trailing horse, Cartagena Slew. Nothing about his convulsions that night in the hospital, the result of head trauma—four hairline fractures of his skull and several more in the bones of his face. Nothing about the doctors' concern about brain damage, never mind the end of his skyrocketing career.
"My first thoughts when I woke up were, How long am I going to be here? When can I ride again?" Desormeaux says. "And then I realized I was in trouble."
But less than a month later, with the hearing in his right ear impaired but his other injuries healed, Desormeaux was riding again. "I've been injured a number of times and always felt normal on that first ride back," he says now. "But this was different. My saddle felt like somebody had messed with it, like it wasn't mine. That's what scared me most."
Desormeaux overcame his fear and disorientation to win his first two races after returning to the track. Not that winning was anything new to him. He was the nation's top money winner in 1992, with purses totaling $14.1 million, and last February he was given the 1992 Eel ipse Award as jockey of the year for his 361 victories. It was Desormeaux's third Eclipse; he won one as the top apprentice in '87 and another as the jockey of the year in '89, both while riding in Maryland. In 1990, though, Desormeaux decided to move his tack and seek his fortune at the big-time tracks of Southern California.
Now, at 23, he is considered one of the top four or five jockeys in the country. With 108 wins already this year, Desormeaux has won 2,478 races in his young career; that puts him on a pace to pass Bill Shoemaker (who retired at age 59 with a record 8,833 victories) in about 20 years should Desormeaux ride well for that long. Shoemaker, the trainer, certainly thinks highly of him; he gave Desormeaux the mount on Diazo, his Kentucky Derby entry. "It was an honor to be aboard Shoe's horse," says Desormeaux, who finished fifth aboard the colt at Churchill Downs. "I've looked up to him for so long. He's been my idol."
Desormeaux has taken Southern California racing by storm, and not only because of his numerous appearances in the winner's circle. With his chiseled chin, custom-made leather jackets and Ray Ban sunglasses, not to mention a certain swagger, he fits in well with the Hollywood set. "I grew up in a town that was five minutes from Lafayette, Louisiana, which we thought was big because it had two malls," he says. "This is the city, and you can take the boy out of the country, but you won't take the country out of the boy."
As evidence of that, Desormeaux drives a pickup truck, not a Range Rover. And he spends much of his free time not at the beach but at the Equestrian Center in Los Angeles, where he and his buddies busy themselves with team penning. Team penning? "There's 30 calves in the arena, and your team has to rope the three calves that are wearing the same number," Desormeaux explains. "Basically you swing the lasso around and act like a cowboy."
Desormeaux also spends a lot of time with his wife, Sonia, and their son, Joshua, who was born five days after Kent's accident. "Joshua will have a cowboy hat and boots and a pleasure saddle with stirrups, everything there is to do with horses," says Kent, who is 5'2" and fights to keep his weight below 112 pounds. "But no jockey saddle, no boots, no whip. It's a tough way to live."
Because of the danger? "No, because you can't eat."