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CALIFORNIA DREAMIN' Kent Desormeaux isn't riding so tall in saddle out West

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Inglewood, Calif.--Kent Desormeaux is no longer the kid who tore through Maryland, first as a cocky adolescent, then as racing's latest wunderkind. He is much more a man. The teen-age blemishes are gone, the deep brown eyes are more intense, the cuteness has become California handsome.

Experience, something he was once so short on, is also his. He has a history, a sensational past. When Kent Desormeaux, all of 21, speaks now, there is an added measure of credibility, something only time could give.

Nearly 18 months into his move to the Southern California circuit, maturity is coinciding with Desormeaux's struggle to establish himself as a star here. And it is a struggle.

Although Desormeaux already has accomplished what no jockey had done in his first year on the circuit -- he won a riding title at a major meeting, the prestigious Oak Tree-at-Santa Anita meet last fall -- this year has not been so good. The combination of recovering from injury, of trying to convince Hall of Fame trainers that he is just as capable as Hall of Fame jockeys and, most of all, of finishing second much more than he has won has made the first six months of 1991 the most frustrating period of his five-year career.

When Desormeaux went to California in February 1990, fresh from a record, 598-victory year achieved mostly in Maryland, expectations were high but realistic. He said he knew that cracking the jockey colony would be tough, but knowledgeable racing people said he had the tools to do it. So when Desormeaux finished second to Patrick Valenzuela at Del Mar Race Course last summer, then won Oak Tree, then finished third at Hollywood Park, many prophecies had been fulfilled.

That was supposed to be only the beginning. The California start was somewhat like the one in fall 1986 in Maryland, when trainer David Vance and agent Gene Short brought with them an unknown apprentice from Louisiana bayou country. The Cajun Kid, as he became known, immediately caught on in Maryland, and he led the standings by huge margins every time he rode an entire meet.

But at the Santa Anita meeting that began Dec. 26, when Desormeaux was eager to make his second year better than the first, the tough luck began. Call it a sophomore jinx. Call it a bridesmaid's complex. Call it whatever. But, by the time he won his fourth race at the meet, ending an 0-for-52 streak, he had finished second 27 times. And in 15 photo finishes for first, Desormeaux won just twice.

Things weren't all bad at Santa Anita, however. He rode Avenue of Flags and Apollo, two Kentucky Derby prospects, and his win percentage eventually improved. But, on March 17, just when he had some momentum going, a mount fell over a horse that had broken down, spilling Desormeaux and breaking his right wrist. He did not return until May 15.

"So, now, it's like I'm starting all over again," Desormeaux said last week before riding at Hollywood.

"We lost a lot of our horses to the layoff," said Short. "They don't come back easy. You've got to work your way back here, little by little. It's rough. Real rough."

Losing does not come easily to Desormeaux. It is not necessarily because he is spoiled, but because he has a tremendous desire to be the best rider in the world. "Even in Maryland, when I'd win four, I'd get all mad at Gene for us not winning five," he said.

Now, he is getting mad for winning none instead of one. He is 10th in the Hollywood standings, a far cry from his Superman status at Laurel and Pimlico race courses. But, if not for the wrist injury, he would be much closer -- his .152 winning percentage compares favorably with those of the leaders. Tenth with an excuse in California, he figures, is better than Maryland's Forever No. 1.

Maryland, somehow, always comes back. But he said he never will go back. Never, except for a Preakness or International or some other big race. There is too much allure in California, too big a world to conquer. This is where they run $100,000 races in the middle of the week, where Pick Six carry-overs soar past $1 million on just the third day, where Steve Cauthen flopped and where former New York star Jose Santos is doing the same, where Kentucky Derby mounts are found, where you can work every day alongside racing legends such as Laffit Pincay Jr. and Chris McCarron.

Comparisons with McCarron are what Desormeaux usually inspires. McCarron, 36, also blitzed Maryland before heading west. In five years, many people say, Desormeaux will be the next McCarron, well on his way to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame. By that time, Eddie Delahoussaye and Pincay and McCarron himself will have grown old enough that younger stars will have taken over.

"I know people say that," Desormeaux said, "but I'm hoping that I can have more meets like Oak Tree, where I don't have to wait five or six years to be on the same level as them."

In at least one respect, he is not on the same level. When it's time to look for a jockey on a superstar horse, trainers such as D. Wayne Lukas or Charlie Whittingham are not immediately thinking of Desormeaux. When Lukas replaced Gary Stevens on Farma Way for the Hollywood Gold Cup last weekend, he got McCarron, not Desormeaux. After McCarron, Lukas probably would have thought of a half-dozen or so others.

"That's something that will change," said Desormeaux. "There was a time when Mr. Lukas had me in mind a lot, right after Oak Tree. But getting hurt changed that. People forget."

Desormeaux has enough perspective not to whine for too lon about bad breaks. The five-year anniversary of his first win, at tiny Evangeline Downs in Louisiana, is Saturday. Since then, he has won more than 1,800 races and his mounts have earned more than $30 million. Last year, he won 220 times, which was little more than one-third of the races he won the previous year -- yet his mounts earned more than $7.1 million, giving him his second-best year financially. (Jockeys earn roughly 10 percent of their mounts' winnings.) He won Eclipse Awards in 1987 and 1989. He said he loves what he is doing and likes where he is living. His is not, by any stretch, a bad life.

Yet something apparently bugs him, something about not winning enough. Regularly winning three or four a day in Maryland was fun, he said, "but here, there's so much more accomplishment to it. In Maryland, it was supposed to happen. Now, when I win it's not because I was on an armchair ride. I can feel it's because of me that a horse wins.

"It's frustrating not to be doing better, but just think -- I'm trying to move Pincay and McCarron and Stevens out of spots. That's asking a lot."

His future is what asks a lot. Will Desormeaux become just a

California regular, a journeyman who blends in with similarly talented riders? Or will he soon achieve the superstardom that so many people in Maryland predicted for him?

Kent Desormeaux, meanwhile, will keep riding, keep trying, keep growing up. No one is calling him the California Kid.

Desormeaux before and after

Jockey Kent Desormeaux's statistics for his last two years in Maryland and since his move to California (through June 30):

Yr.. ..Starts.. ..Wins.. ..Earnings

'88.. ..1,897.. .. .474.. ..$6,276,241

'89.. ..2,313.. ..x-598.. ..$9,107,563

'90.. ..1,415.. .. .220.. ..$7,134,325

'91.. .. .488.. .. ..59.. ..$2,201,910

x-World record

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