Desormeaux rises to the top despite his son's ordeal

March 11, 2008 6:00 PM
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Golden Edge by Ed Golden | Ignorance and insensitivity are rampant in this nation. Standing in an elevator at the Four Seasons in Las Vegas a few months ago, a woman chastised her husband by asking him if he was "autistic." I should have said something, but I let it go.

My grandson has autism. He’s the sweetest little guy, six years old, happy and very smart, but he’s never spoken and we are doing all we can emotionally, spiritually and financially to bring him into our world and us into his, even minimally. Today, after years of intensive and extensive therapy from dedicated teachers, he can say, "Hi, Poppy" and other words, not in normal fashion, but in breathless, hushed tones. Still, it warms our hearts. Life is relative, and we take what we can get.

Autism is a devastating biological and neurological disorder that is incurable, and can effect individuals in communicating, social and learning skills, odd behaviors, sensory issues and medial problems. Autism irrevocably fixes a life sentence on the entire family, and none should have to endure the infinite trauma of raising a child who is different, certainly not in the crass world that exists today.

But Kent Desormeaux and his kinfolk are doing just that. Kent, his wife, Sonia, and their oldest son, Joshua, 15, are understandably united in support of the youngest member of their family, 9-year-old Jacob, who was born deaf. At the age of one, Jacob had a cochlear implant inserted in his right ear to aid his hearing. Emergency surgery followed two years later.

"It’s certainly sad for mom and dad," Desormeaux said at the time, in October of 2002, "but Jacob is the happiest kid in the world and there’s no option … he gets joy out of hearing, and as his parents, certainly we do, too … he’s just as happy as ever. He doesn’t know there’s any problem, but it’s something we have to do."

By that time, Desormeaux had already established himself as an international presence in racing. In 1989, he shattered the record for victories in a year with 599. He would go on to earn three Eclipse Awards as outstanding jockey, and in 1995, at the age of 25, won his 3,000th race, the youngest rider ever to reach that number. He won the Kentucky Derby on Real Quiet in 1998, and in 2000 on Fusaichi Pegasus. In 2004, Desormeaux was elected to racing’s Hall of Fame.

But by the spring of 2006, those laudatory achievements were yesterday’s news. With business sparse and no resurrection in sight, Kent made a career-altering decision. He left California to ride on the East Coast. Critics bitterly said good luck and good riddance, not necessarily in that order, certain Desormeaux’s best days were behind him. They were wrong.

Fast forward to March 1, 2008. Desormeaux sits in the jockeys’ room at Santa Anita, where he has just finished out of the money on longshots in the first two races, warmup events for the reason he came in from Florida, to ride favored War Monger in the $300,000 Kilroe Mile (he would finish third). Desormeaux, whose talent on horseback has rarely been questioned, reflected on leaving the Golden State, which, to nearly everyone’s surprise, has allowed Kent to reinvent himself.

"Statistically, the move was a success, although understandably, it took a while," Desormeaux said. "The best part was it enabled me to present myself in a new light. Whatever they thought of me in California, it didn’t matter, because when I showed up in New York, it was all brand new; it was all fresh."

Not that he was welcomed with open arms. Old issues die hard.

"A lot of agents and trainers have established a network through the years, and in racing, whether you’re on a roll or not, it’s hard to crack that establishment," he said. "The perfect word for it is clique. If you can get on board, if you can get in the clique, then you’re all right. My records meant nothing when I got to New York. Being in the Hall of Fame didn’t matter. It didn’t carry any weight. I had to re-establish myself."

And that he did, with the help of East Coast-based agent Mike Sellito. Today, he ranks fifth nationally in purse earnings with nearly $2 million, and is riding for international horsemen such as Bill Mott, Nick Zito, Steve Asmussen, Rick Dutrow and Shug McGaughey.

Desormeaux is optimistic he can win the Kentucky Derby for the third time, perhaps with Fountain of Youth winner Cool Coal Man for Zito, or Florida Derby prospect Big Brown for Dutrow, or Alaazo for Mott, or Massive Drama for Bob Baffert. "If I can win the Derby again," Desormeaux said, "it’s going to be this year."

Desormeaux, who was 38 on Feb. 27, is a native of Maurice, Louisiana, in the heart of Cajun Country. Although he is content in the knowledge that he did the right thing when he left California, it was not without trepidation.

"There were no regrets when I left," Desormeaux said. "There was sadness due to the fact that I had to leave. 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."

His success in the East doesn’t preclude a permanent return to Southern California in the future. "We made friends in the 20 years I rode here, and when my saddle goes on the wall, we’ll probably end up here," Desormeaux said. "I don’t know if it will be before that, because a day like March 1 is a perfect example. My agent and I made ourselves available to everyone at Santa Anita who might have had a horse to ride, but they were already committed. Nothing broke free."

Desormeaux’s unwavering passion and focus is all the more remarkable in the face of Jacob’s latest crisis, which again brings life’s priorities into acute perspective.

"We recently found out he’s probably going to be totally blind by the time he’s 20 or 22, so we have to deal with that right now," said Desormeaux, not trying in the least to elicit sympathy. He would seem to be numbingly beyond that by now. Jacob has Usher syndrome, which the National Eye Institute defines as follows: "Usher syndrome is an inherited condition that causes 1) a serious hearing loss that is usually present at birth or shortly thereafter and 2) progressive vision loss caused by retinitis pigmentosa (RP). RP is a group of inherited diseases that cause night-blindness and peripheral (side) vision loss through the progressive degeneration of the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye that is crucial for vision."

"Jacob has a disease that’s supposedly indigenous to Cajuns," Desormeaux continued. "A lot of people from Southern Louisiana have it. Genetics are traced to Cajuns. But once you understand the illness, it explains what his body’s going through. Now, at least, we know what’s in store."

Not that it makes things any easier. But compassion and understanding would.

The homestretch

Autism Awareness won Saturday’s El Camino Real Derby at a $126 payoff for owner John Taboada, whose 8-year-old son, Renzo, has autism.

• Garrett Gomez will be in Dubai March 29 to ride in races worth more than $10 million before returning briefly to Santa Anita and then heading to Keeneland. That would leave Rafael Bejarano all alone as Santa Anita’s leader in the jockey standings.

• Bet on any horse that trainer Mike Mitchell sends out.