The culminating moment of Kent Desormeaux's rebirth as a jockey
came as the 15 horses raced for the far turn at Churchill Downs.
There was more than a half mile to run in the Kentucky Derby,
and Desormeaux was moving along freely in sixth place on his
mount, Real Quiet, six lengths off the pace, when he suddenly
found himself caught in a perilous squeeze--between a pair of
tiring horses coming back to him and a posse gaining from
behind. What to do now? he thought.
The Derby had unfolded perfectly for Desormeaux and Real
Quiet--a bay so narrow as a yearling that he was nicknamed the
Fish--with Desormeaux hugging the rail early and then angling
his colt out two wide in the run down the backstretch. Now the
half-mile pole loomed, and Real Quiet seemed about to be
swallowed by horses. "At that moment, it was like everyone just
crisscrossed," Desormeaux said. "The speed stopped, and here
came the posse from behind, and I was in the middle."
Unflustered, Desormeaux tugged gently on his right line,
swimming the Fish to the outside behind his charging stablemate,
Indian Charlie, and instantly his colt delivered a surge of
speed. At that point Desormeaux reached down and took hold of
him, resetting the bridle and steadying him into long, rhythmic
strides. All week long trainer Bob Baffert had favored Indian
Charlie, the more talented of his two colts, and the betting
public had concurred on Saturday, sending Charlie off as the
Derby favorite, at 5-2, while making Real Quiet the fifth choice
at 8-1. As Charlie swept for home, snatching the lead from Old
Trieste and looking for all the world like a Derby winner,
Desormeaux hit the gas and his colt came bounding like a stag to
Charlie's side. Jockey Gary Stevens, one of the leading riders
in the world, glanced to his right and knew at once that he was
riding a beaten horse.
"Go on with him, 'Meaux!" Stevens yelled.
Such a scene would have seemed unlikely just 14 months ago,
when, struggling in a sport that had once celebrated him as the
next Bill Shoemaker, Desormeaux had no reason to imagine that he
would be collaring the Derby favorite on the last turn at
Churchill Downs this year. By March 1997, two months before
Stevens won his third Kentucky Derby (on Baffert's Silver
Charm), Desormeaux had alienated so many trainers and fallen so
far from grace that he was scrounging for mounts in the stable
area at Santa Anita. "Every morning I was there exercising
horses for Bob Baffert, more or less begging for an opportunity
to ride for his stable," he says. "Things were not as they used
to be, I wasn't doing as well, and that is a very, very humbling
Few riders had risen faster than Desormeaux, who grew up on a
farm in Louisiana's Cajun country riding horses and, for $2 an
hour, pulling a 35-foot plow on his father's tractor, barely
able to see over the steering wheel. In 1986, at 16, he started
riding at little Evangeline Downs and the next year hauled his
tack to the Maryland circuit, where he was the nation's leading
apprentice rider and won the first of his three Eclipse Awards.
He was bright, athletic and capable, and race-riding came easy
to him early. Perhaps too easy, perhaps too early. "I was very
lucky very fast," he says.
In 1989 he rode a staggering 598 winners, still a single-year
record in the sport, and after moving to Southern California in
1990, he became a leading rider in the most competitive of
American jockey colonies, working out of Santa Anita, Hollywood
Park and Del Mar. He won his 3,000th race in 1995, at 25, making
him the youngest rider in history to reach that mark. But by
then, Desormeaux's lack of professionalism in the saddle had
made him the bane of many trainers, owners and handicappers.
Most disconcerting was his penchant, when he knew he wasn't
going to win but was still in contention for part of the purse,
for failing to ride hard to the finish, coming in third when he
might have been second, or fourth when he might have been third.
Trainers and owners began to abandon him, leaving him scuffing
dirt at Baffert's door. Baffert had watched him closely in his
decline. "He just wasn't into it," the trainer says. "His mind
wasn't right. These riders do so well, and they just take it for
granted. He lacked that hunger. One day he came to me."
Baffert became his chief mentor and critic. Easing horses
prematurely was only one knock against Desormeaux. He also had a
tendency to ride mounts other than his own, purposely carrying
horses wide or shutting them off. "You irritate other trainers
and that hurts your business," Baffert told him. "Gary Stevens
doesn't do that. Just ride your own horse."
Baffert also told Desormeaux that he wasn't working hard enough
and insisted he show up at the barn every morning. "He came out
and worked all my horses," Baffert says. The trainer critiqued
Desormeaux's rides, sitting him down to go over what the rider
was doing wrong, and upbraided him for being too hard on horses
when pulling them up at the finish and bringing them back to be
unsaddled too quickly. "You've got to take care of these
horses," Baffert told him. "That's how you make your living."
The rider flourished under Baffert's counsel. The trainer
started riding him last July, and by the end of the summer
Desormeaux had won the Del Mar riding title, with 40 wins, his
first such championship in three years. This winter, with 89
wins, he took the Santa Anita riding title. Of course, when he
became Real Quiet's regular jockey on Dec. 14, winning the
Hollywood Futurity on the colt, he was just beginning to thread
his way on a path that would lead to the top of the stretch at
Churchill Downs. There, he blew past Charlie and slashed and
scrubbed his way to the wire, holding off Victory Gallop to win
by half a length, with Charlie finishing third. It was
Desormeaux's first Derby victory in seven starts.
The finish left three men levitating above the Downs in the hazy
late afternoon light. There was Baffert, who not only had picked
the colt out of the Keeneland sale in September 1996 but also
had helped engineer the resurgence of his rider, with his second
Derby victory in a row. There was the colt's owner and one of
Baffert's best friends, Mike Pegram, who owns 22 McDonald's
franchises and paid a measly $17,000 for the Fish on the
trainer's advice. "Can you ever figure it?" an ebullient Pegram
asked as he wandered from the winner's circle to the press
center. "How do you figure it? How can you have this much fun?"
Then there was Desormeaux himself, who had lost his way but
found it again.
"By being so ignorant and young, I slowed my success down," he
said. " Everything ended for a while. I wish I had not been so
As Desormeaux and Real Quiet rushed under the wire, the rider
raised a fist high in the air. He was thinking of his first
Derby, when he was 18 years old and finished 16th on Purdue King
in 1988, and of his grandmother, Laurabelle. "When I crossed the
finish line today, I just started crying because when I came to
ride in my first Derby, my grandmother died. Those emotions went
through me, and I thanked my grandmother for being there all the
times that she was."
Ninety minutes after the Derby, Desormeaux was taking a hot
shower, washing off the dirt and sand that had been thrown in
his face during the race. He was still trying to sort through
all that he was feeling, thinking how the victory had been made
more meaningful by the struggles he had been through over the
past three years, how content and fulfilled he felt, when
someone tapped him on his shoulder. It was jockey Craig Perret,
who had won the 1990 Derby on Unbridled. "Welcome to the club,"
"There's no club like it," Desormeaux replied.
And welcome, as a professional at last, to the profession.