Desormeaux may finally have the horse he can ride into big time


ARCADIA, Calif. -- It takes a lot to be a good jockey. The limber muscles of a yogi, the hands of a sculptor, the timing of Big Ben.

To be a great jockey, though, you need one more ingredient. A horse.

Two years ago, Kent Desormeaux, fresh from a record 597-win season in Maryland, came to California to find the horse who would carry him to greatness.

Arcaro had Whirlaway and Citation, Longden had Count Fleet, Shoemaker had Swaps. Nobody ever became a star in this game riding $16,000 claimers.

"That's the reason I came out here," Desormeaux said between races the other day in the Santa Anita jockeys' room, "to get a big horse, to win the classics."

It took longer than he expected, but Desormeaux finally has that horse, Best Pal, who will try to confirm his superiority among the nation's 4-year-olds by winning today's Grade I, $500,000 Charles H. Strub Stakes.

The Strub field, expected to number six or more, should include Olympio and Dinard. Pat Valenzuela's contractual obligation to ride Dinard for owner Allen Paulson gave Desormeaux the chance to ride Best Pal.

Trainer Gary Jones said it was actually Best Pal's breeder and owner, John Mabee of San Diego, who chose Desormeaux. And it was precisely because Desormeaux wasn't tied up with a lot of other stakes horses, and could commit to Best Pal for the year.

Jones agreed with Mabee's choice. Jones was already using Desormeaux to ride Kostroma, briefly ranked the best filly or mare on grass last year.

Why hadn't other trainers used Desormeaux on their best horses?

"There's a mystique about stakes races," Jones said, "that makes guys want the old, cool riders, like [Eddie] Delahoussaye."

In other words, if you've been winning races for years with Delahoussaye, Laffit Pincay, Chris McCarron and Valenzuela, why take a chance on a kid?

Desormeaux is still a kid, after all. He's 21, less than half Pincay's age, until Feb. 27. He is the youngest jockey ever to reach 2,000 victories, but a vein of immaturity runs through that milestone.

Stewards at Del Mar and Santa Anita have lectured Desormeaux on his tendency to ease up after his horses were passed near the finish. A couple of times it appeared to cost him -- and owners and bettors -- a placing. On Dec. 31, after Desormeaux and Calypsonian missed second place by a nose in a maiden race at Santa Anita, the official finish-line photo showed the rider almost standing up in the irons.

People who know Desormeaux said he is so eager to win that when he can't, he gets angry and loses concentration.

"If anything, he's just a little too competitive at times," said Jones, remembering times when Desormeaux, dueling Valenzuela for the riding title at Del Mar, should have eased up on beaten horses but didn't.

Sometimes, Desormeaux is so emotional after dismounting that he can't tell the trainer what went wrong.

"I've found you sometimes have to wait a day before you can get a real good opinion out of him," Jones said.

But, Jones said, "He's smart enough to know he's got a lot to learn."

Said Desormeaux of the criticism: "It made me a better rider."

Desormeaux has been under the microscope here since before he decided to challenge the best jockey colony in America.

Marje Everett, Hollywood Park's chairwoman in 1989, helped "recruit" Desormeaux by throwing a party for him at her Holmby Hills house, where John Forsythe, Merv Griffin and Aaron Spelling were among the guests. The track set up a news conference at which Desormeaux expressed confidence that he could lead the Southern California standings "with a little bit of luck."

Since then, he has led the Oak Tree jockey standings in 1990 and 1991, and is second to Eddie Delahoussaye, 39 wins to 38, at this Santa Anita meet.

Desormeaux, who grew up and began his riding career in Louisiana, maintains a homespun quality. He married a girl, Sonia, who lived "a quarter-mile" from Desormeaux's family in Maurice, La. Agent Gene Short has been with him since Desormeaux's fourth victory at Evangeline Downs in 1986.

A year later, Desormeaux led all jockeys with 450 victories, and broke Steve Cauthen's record for stakes wins by an apprentice with 20.

After leading the nation in victories again in 1988, he capped the East Coast phase of his career by breaking McCarron's 15-year-old record with the 598 wins in 1989.

"Kent knows how to relax a horse, and when to wake 'em up," trainer Bob Hess Jr. said. "And he's not afraid to come through on the inside." Hess has 10 victories at the Santa Anita meet -- tying him with Jones and D. Wayne Lukas for the lead -- and Desormeaux has ridden half of them.

Now he wants quality as well as quantity.

It hurt Desormeaux when, although he was leading the Oak Tree standings at the time, he wasn't invited to ride a single horse in the Nov. 2 Breeders' Cup races. Delahoussaye, Pincay, McCarron, Valenzuela -- they all went to Churchill Downs.

Desormeaux's best horse at the time was Kostroma, and there wasn't a Breeders' Cup race for her.

Since then, Desormeaux has ridden Best Pal to a strong second behind Fly Till Dawn in the Citation Handicap on the Hollywood Park grass, and won the San Fernando Stakes by 3 1/2 lengths over Olympio.

Today, the Strub Stakes, run at the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles, presents Desormeaux with his next great opportunity.

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