Former top jock to ride in Cup races
The contempt was palpable when Kent Desormeaux left Southern California two years ago. Detractors could barely contain their disdain. Desormeaux, by his own admission, had worn out his welcome. Business had dried up. He was the jockey who cried wolf, persona non grata.
Tail between his legs, his confidence waning but not his talent, Desormeaux moved East, where he had taken the racing industry by storm two years after he began his career by winning 598 races in 1989, breaking Chris McCarron’s 15-year-old record for most wins in a year. Desormeaux’s star rose fast. He was racing’s Golden Boy. Kentucky Derby victories on Real Quiet in 1998, Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 and Big Brown in 2007 highlighted a resume that reached its apex with Desormeaux’s election to the Hall of Fame in 2004 at the age of 34. He is one of only three riders to earn Eclipse Awards as an apprentice and a journeyman, along with McCarron and Steve Cauthen.
Desormeaux came within an eyelash of winning the Triple Crown on Real Quiet, losing the Belmont Stakes in the last jump to Victory Gallop and Gary Stevens. Desormeaux’s last-place Belmont finish in quest of the elusive Triple Crown on an eased Big Brown will forever be steeped in controversy.
From 2003, it was all down hill. Whether he became a legend in his own mind and a victim of his own press clippings is open to speculation, but by 2007, the flame of Desormeaux’s success remained only a burning ember. When he didn’t ride horses out for minor awards, critics were eager to point out his deficiency. He had as much chance of resurrecting his career in California as Rush Limbaugh has of being appointed one of Obama’s czars. Desormeaux departed the Golden State with nothing but tarnished memories.
"There were no regrets when I left," Desormeaux told me in the spring of 2007. "There was sadness due to the fact that I had to leave, but the writing was on the wall. I had grown stale. I didn’t want to be a fifth-leading rider, and I had thrown down the gauntlet to try to climb back to the top and couldn’t get up there, so, have bag, will travel."
Fast forward to 2009, and Desormeaux is laughing all the way to the bank. If there was an award for Comeback Jockey, he’d be odds-on to win it.
Currently, he ranks fourth nationally in purse earnings with more than $11.5 million, and is the regular rider of Summer Bird, pro tem leader for an Eclipse Award as outstanding male 3-year-old and a major contender in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Oak Tree on Nov. 7.
Desormeaux gained the mount on Summer Bird for the Belmont Stakes on June 6, won it, and after a no-disgrace loss to super filly Rachel Alexandra in the Haskell Invitational, won the prestigious Travers Stakes and the Jockey Club Gold Cup against older horses. Summer Bird became the first 3-year-old since Easy Goer in 1989 to accomplish the feat.
Once Desormeaux became available, trainer Tim Ice didn’t hesitate to grab him for Summer Bird.
"I worked for Kent’s brother, Keith, when I was in California from 1995 until 1999," Ice said. "That’s when I first met Kent. After the Kentucky Derby this year and prior to the Preakness, I wanted to see if I could get Kent for the Belmont.
"At the time, they couldn’t give me the call because they were riding a horse in the Preakness (Tone It Down, a $23.90-1 shot who beat one horse in a field of 13), and had to see how he ran. Obviously, if the horse had won, they wouldn’t be able to take him off. When Kent became available for the Belmont, we jumped at the chance to get him."
Ice did so despite knowing Desormeaux’s muddled past, heavy with both baggage and bangles.
"Kent got in a mess and sometimes you have to move to a different place to rekindle the flame," Ice said. "But he caught fire and he’s riding good. He’s hooked up with some good outfits now, (Hall of Fame trainer) Bill Mott in particular.
"Kent’s a great rider. There’s been a lot of controversy on some of his rides, but I think he rides every horse to the wire now and it’s got him back in the game."
News you can bet on: Zenyatta will run against males for the first time in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The announcement is imminent … As noted in the past, the following horses WILL NOT run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, so don’t waste money betting on them in the Future Book: Chocolate Candy, Georgie Boy, Kelly Leak, Mast Track, Midshipman, Misremembered, Papa Clem, Parading, Rail Trip, Sea the Stars, Tiago and Tres Borrachos. They are either hurt, retired, or going in other races … Citing a sluggish economy, Oak Tree has cut overnight purses 10 percent. "Our handle is off across the board," said Oak Tree Executive Vice-President Sherwood Chillingworth. "On top of that, our horse inventory is down significantly from last year. We remain optimistic that we can finish up strongly with the Breeders’ Cup, but we really have no other choice at this time other than to make this cut."
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