In 1993, Kent Desormeaux was winning races in bodacious bunches at Del Mar.
He won 67 during the 43-day meet that year, and 68 in 1992. It was not uncommon for Desormeaux to win four races in one day.
But times have changed at Del Mar for the 31-year-old jockey, a three-time Eclipse Award winner and the youngest rider to reach 3,000 career victories. Before he won the eighth race last Monday, Desormeaux had only four wins through the first 18 days of the meet. Through Sunday, he had seven wins from 96 starts, with 19 seconds and 12 thirds. He was winning only 7.3 percent of his races.
Desormeaux and his new agent, Tom Knust, took a realistic approach when they decided to become a team some four months ago. But a win every four days is not what they had in mind.
There are legitimate reasons for Desormeaux’s infrequent visits to the winners’ circle. For virtually the entire Hollywood Park meet, he rode in Japan, where he took his wife, Sonia, and sons Joshua and Jacob. The latter was born deaf and Desormeaux used the visit to the Orient to act as Jake’s “speech therapist” after the 2-year-old had received a cochlear implant that enables him to hear sounds. Kent’s sojourn cost him mounts with barns he had been riding for before he left, such as Bob Baffert and Neil Drysdale. Both trainers now give Gary Stevens first call on their prime stock. Kent is on the outside looking in.
But Knust struck an optimistic chord when asked if Desormeaux’s perseverance was growing thin.
“(Bobby) Frankel is starting to put us on some horses and that helps a lot,” said Knust, a former racing secretary at Santa Anita and Del Mar. “Kent is still patient. We’re not riding for two of the biggest stables, Baffert and Drysdale. But when we were riding for them, that meant we weren’t riding for other people. So now, we have to start riding for other people to make up for (the loss of) Baffert and Drysdale.
“I think eventually Baffert and Drysdale will start riding Kent again, but it will be when they’re ready. He hasn’t been named on Drysdale’s horses, and he hasn’t been named on anything for Baffert yet.
“Right now, Drysdale has Stevens as his No. 1 rider, and Baffert has Stevens with his better horses. While Kent was gone, it was an opportunity for Stevens to get into the barn. Kent’s riding very, very well right now. He’s riding as good as ever, and when he went to Japan and established records over there, he was riding good there, too. At this meet so far, I think he’s had more seconds than anybody (17) and I don’t think he’s ridden very many favorites. Kent’s very upbeat, but he’s very much a competitor. He wants to be on top and he doesn’t like not being on top.”
Both Baffert and Drysdale said there was nothing untoward in Desormeaux’s absence from their horses.
“I’m using him,” said Baffert, who won the 1998 Kentucky Derby with Desormeaux aboard Real Quiet. “Everything’s OK. I just haven’t gotten to him.” Drysdale, who gave Desormeaux a leg up on Fusaichi Pegasus when they won the 2000 Derby, said Kent still is in good standing.
“At the moment, Stevens is riding for us,” Drysdale explained. “Kent’s been in Japan. There’s no reason he wouldn’t ride for us in the future. It’s just the way it is at the moment. It’s no big deal. I wouldn’t say he’s out of our barn. I wouldn’t say that at all. Gary’s just been riding most of the horses.”
Meanwhile, Knust is keeping a stiff upper lip and pressing forward.
“I’ve been talking to Bill Mott, Elliott Walden and Niall O’Callaghan, all trainers back East, to try and keep Kent prominent nationally,” Knust said.
As far as ill will towards him from trainers and now fellow agents because of his days as racing secretary, Knust says it’s not a factor in getting mounts for Desormeaux.
“The reaction has pretty much been moderate,” Knust said. “There are certain trainers who are going to ride Kent and there are those who have their riders. It’s not real hard promoting a guy like Kent, because you don’t have to promote his riding ability. But trainers aren’t real fast to drop riders they’ve been riding, so he’s got to sit behind a lot of riders and some stables because that’s just the way game is. Once he gets on a horse and rides for a stable, we can work into those barns, because he’ll produce.”
Knust said agents are not holding a grudge from his days as racing secretary.
“I don’t really think too many agents help each other out,” he said. “They use other agents when it’s to their advantage. I really don’t think too many agents work together. If it gets an agent out of a jam, they’ll recommend an other rider (to a trainer), but normally, agents just don’t help one another out.”
Despite the slow start, Knust says better days are ahead.
“I’m real optimistic,” he said. “As long as Kent’s riding like he is right now, we’ll get the winners. They’ll come.”
THE HOMESTRETCH: Drysdale was awaiting word from Fusaichi Zenon’s owner, Fasao Sekiguchi, as to where the son of Sunday Silence will run next. The invader from Japan missed by a nose in an allowance race in his U.S. debut. “I sent a fax off to Japan the other day with my suggestions and I am waiting to hear from him,” Drysdale said. Races being considered for Fusaichi Zenon could be the Del Mar Derby on Sept. 3 or the Arlington Million on Saturday . . . Expect Skimming to lead a short field all the way in Sunday’s Pacific Classic.