Desormeaux ready to mount
Hall of Fame comeback

Feb 1, 2005 3:51 AM

Denial is a useful tool.

It can be employed to skip through life unrealistically, a la Walter Mitty, whimsically whisking away responsible tasks that burden the hoi polloi.

Somewhere along the way, however, the time comes when the piper must be paid. Such a moment is at hand for Kent Desormeaux.

In 1993 he was at the apex of a career that seemingly knew no boundaries. He was the regular rider of Kotashaan, who would go on the win the Breeders’ Cup Turf and earn Horse of the Year honors.

In his first seven years as a rider, Desormeaux had achieved more than most jockeys do in a lifetime. He was a three-time Eclipse Award winner, twice as a journeyman (1989 and 1992) and once as champion apprentice (1987), one of only three riders to accomplish that (Chris McCarron and Steve Cauthen are the others). In 1993 he won the prestigious George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, an honor bestowed upon him by his peers, and in 1989, he won a mind-boggling 598 races, the most ever in a single year and a record that still stands.

Although since 1993 he has won the Kentucky Derby twice and been elected to the Hall of Fame, a chorus of closet critics point to valleys of unfullfilment for Desormeaux. Accusers say he brought his present plight on himself with an all-or-nothing attitude that had him so bent on winning he would not waste effort riding for minor awards. This stigma grew, drawing the wrath of bettors, racing officials, horsemen and the media.

Last year the Louisiana native with the matinee-idol good looks (he performed in an episode of the hit TV series, "Baywatch,") won only 109 races. At Santa Anita during a recent weekend, Desormeaux had only five mounts in a span of 26 races, an affront to a proud and competitive athlete whose thirst for victory is unquenchable.

That’s what sticks in his craw, and that’s why Desormeaux and his new agent, Harry (The Hat) Hacek are taking drastic corrective measures. Hacek, who has represented Hall of Fame jockeys Cauthen, McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, Sandy Hawley, Darrel McHargue and Gary Stevens, among others, is in the arduous process of reopening doors, along with his newest client.

Horsemen do not question Desormeaux’s enormous skills on horseback, only his outlook and work ethic.

Agent and rider are facing those issues head-on. They are beating the bushes on the backstretch on a daily basis.

"It would be safe to say Kent has fallen from grace in the past few years, hitting rock-bottom at the recent Hollywood Park fall meet where he finished 12th in the standings with just 10 wins," points out Hacek, who earned the nickname "The Hat" years ago through his propensity for wearing chapeaus. "The alliteration was a nice fit," Hacek said when a friend dubbed him ”˜The Hat,’ "so I kept it.

"Everyone knows of Kent’s impressive statistics and accomplishments," Hacek said. "Yet it is inconceivable that he would win only 109 races in 2004, less than half of those won by Tyler Baze, Victor Espinoza and Corey Nakatani, to name but three. Remember, in his early 30s Kent once led the greatest riding colony ever assembled, consisting of the likes of Pincay, McCarron, Delahoussaye, Stevens, Solis, etc.

"Understandably, Kent is disturbed by his decline in popularity and production. He is aware of his shortcomings and readily accepts full blame. He began 2005 with a new agent and a new attitude, as though he just arrived in California, only wiser and more mature. He wants a second chance. Working closely with him in the past few weeks, I know people will be amazed by his new makeover. It will be a work in progress."

Not that it’s been all bad for Desormeaux, who turns 35 on Feb. 27. Far from it. Criticism aside, in 2000 Desormeaux won his second Kentucky Derby in three years aboard Fusaichi Pegasus and his earnings of $13.4 million led all California-based riders and placed him fifth nationally. He won 20 graded stakes races that year. In 1997 at the age of 27, he became the youngest jockey to surpass $100 million in career earnings and he began 2003 eighth on the all-time earnings list with $166,055,249. Last year, Desormeaux received his crowning award, induction into the Hall of Fame, becoming the youngest rider to be so honored.

There are those who would attribute Desormeaux’s relative void in large part to multiple skull fractures suffered in a spill at Hollywood Park on Dec. 11, 1992, although he returned on Jan. 22, 1993, and won aboard his first two mounts. Others could cite the trauma Kent and his wife, Sonia, experienced when their youngest son, Jacob, was born deaf. But Desormeaux would be the last person to make excuses. In my dealings with him, he has always been forthright. No one feels worse after a loss than Kent. He knows he is overdue in righting his wayward ship.

"Harry gave me a wake-up call," Desormeaux said. "He berated me with expletives about what I was doing with my career. He didn’t massage my ego and he pointed out my shortcomings. I appreciated his candor. It was just what I needed. I had lost focus. You will see a new and improved version of Kent Desormeaux, I guarantee."

Hacek concurs.

"Since joining forces, Kent has done everything I have asked of him," Hacek said. "His dedication and determination have never been stronger. If owners and trainers give him a deserved second chance, or half the opportunity they are willing to give Pat Valenzuela, we’ll show everyone that Kent is the best rider in America today. He is an Arcaro, Pincay, Cordero type, smart and strong, and his accomplishments at such a young age support that. Competitive slander and character assassination cannot change those facts."

The homestretch

Laffit Pincay Jr. would love to ride again, but he recognizes that he never will. Retired nearly two years since he was injured in a spill at Santa Anita, Pincay reluctantly has accepted his plight.

"I still miss riding and I wish I could, but there’s nothing I can do," he said. "I weigh about 123 pounds (six over his riding weight). It’s not easy but I don’t want to get heavy. I feel good the way I am. I go to the gym all the time and we’ve been doing a lot of hiking."

A member of racing’s Hall of Fame since 1975, the 58-year-old Pincay readily admits that Russell Baze will one day surpass his career record of 9,530 victories. With typical class, Pincay said he has no ill feelings about that or the fact Baze has compiled the vast majority of his wins (8,839 and counting) in the Bay Area.

"He’s definitely going to pass me," Pincay told me. "As far as Russell winning most of his races in Northern California, it was always tough for me to win races wherever I went. To me, a record is a record no matter where you do it. It’s about winning races. It doesn’t matter where you do it. Winning races is what counts."