LOS ANGELES -- Kent Desormeaux is reliving his first Kentucky Derby victory.
It's a week after the fact, but the feelings are still close to the surface. He's sitting at Los Alamitos Race Course having dinner with his wife, Sonia, and 5-year-old son, Joshua, and his voice goes hoarse with emotion.
Specifically, he's recalling his thoughts as he crossed the finish line at Churchill Downs aboard Real Quiet.
He remembered his first pony. His first ride. His first starts from the gate in Louisiana and Maryland. The first time he saw "The Black Stallion" and heard Mickey Rooney tell the horse's young jockey, "It's all in the hands. It's in the hands."
"I know, it's hard to believe that anyone could think all that in such a short time, but my whole life and career flashed through my mind," he said. "To win the Kentucky Derby -- after having been on top of the world and then falling off the face of the Earth -- it was like I was wide-awake inside my most fantastic dream."
After years of success, Desormeaux became the jockey no one wanted to see. This is the story of how far he fell and how he has come back to touch the stars once more. Tomorrow, Desormeaux is the only one positioned in the Preakness to take a shot at the Triple Crown.
One year ago, he started turning it around when he went to trainer Bob Baffert and asked to ride his horses. Eventually, he would earn the privilege, but first he had to hear a lecture. "The trouble with you is you've got to quit riding other people's horses and just ride your own," Baffert told him.
He also had to prove he really wanted to change.
Top of the world
Back in Maryland, when Desormeaux was setting national records as a 17-year-old apprentice and making a big name for himself with 244 wins his first season and a record 598 wins in his third, people always said: "He's the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet." They wished him well as he packed up two Eclipse Awards at the end of the 1989 season and left for California to race against the sport's elite.
"From the moment he arrived [in California], you could see his talent," said jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. "He was very daring, but a little bit rough, too. He could make it very hard on you, and a lot of jockeys didn't like it. But he learned -- and we learned that he is very strong in the stretch. He gets everything a horse has to give."
Desormeaux added a third Eclipse Award in 1992 at age 23. And a terrible fall at the end of the year, which left him with 10 skull fractures, six facial fractures and no hearing in one ear, barely slowed him.
The fall to Earth
He had a brilliant 1993. He rode trainer Richard Mandella's Kotashaan to victory in the Breeders' Cup, was the top rider at three tracks and won the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award.
But it was that same year that things started going badly. In the Beverly Hills Handicap at Hollywood Park, there were only four horses in the race, but Desormeaux allowed his mount, Flawlessly, to get pinned in all the way around and finished second in the $300,000 race. In the Del Mar Handicap, he rode the favorite Kotashaan and finished second.
Then, to top it off, at the $3.6 million Japan Cup in November, Desormeaux was again riding Kotashaan and leading when he misjudged the finish line for the second time that day. He stood up in the saddle, and finished second to Legacy World, costing his trainer and owner nearly $1 million, the difference between first and second place.
"There is no doubt that I was on top of the world," Desormeaux said. "No one needed to tell me how to ride a horse. I became very irresponsible with rides.
"I was immature in a number of situations. I wasn't professional. I didn't pay attention to trainer's instructions, and I wasn't persevering to the wire."
"I tried to talk to him," Mandella said last weekend at Hollywood Park. "He knew how I felt, but I talked to him when he was in the middle of his problem and I don't think he understood what I was saying. He was having success at a very young age, and he got a little too carried away with himself."
Nearly everyone, including Desormeaux, says he simply lacked maturity.
"He didn't understand that first it takes a great horse, a trainer, an owner, grooms -- everyone on the team," said Mandella. "He is and has always been a very good rider. But his attitude -- it offended and upset people."
Mandella never stopped using Desormeaux totally, but he used him less.
"He wasn't the first one I thought of," Mandella said.
At that point, Desormeaux said, he felt self-important.
"I thought it was me that made the difference between winning and losing," he said. "I thought they were lucky to have me on their horses.
"I needed to remember what they had done for me. They know when they have a horse sitting on a win. They used to put me on that horse."
Desormeaux remembers walking in one stable door with his then-agent Gene Short and seeing the trainers literally run out the doors at the other end, "because they didn't want to see me."
At home, Sonia said her husband's attitude wasn't as bad, but was noticeable, and she would call the track results lines daily to find out if he had won before he got home from work.
"If he hadn't, Joshua and I would go to the grocery store to give him a little more time to get over it," she said. "We made a lot of trips to the grocery store."
Growing up together
Sonia grew up across the street from the Desormeaux family and gave Kent a ride to school almost every day. But she didn't have her first date with him until after he had become a star jockey in Maryland.
"I really didn't want to go out with him," she said. "Everyone was always taking about him, about how successful he was, how hotheaded he was, about how much money he made, what kind of car he drove. I thought he'd be someone very full of himself. But he wasn't like that at all. It was the most wonderful lunch date, and he never brought up any of that."
So imagine how Sonia felt when her husband's ego grew out of control.
"To some extent, he became the person I always feared meeting, just being so full of himself," she said.
And when Desormeaux is frustrated, she added, "everyone around him is miserable."
Sonia tried to tell her husband how he had changed and what was happening, just as Mandella had, with an equal lack of success.
"He didn't want to hear the truth from me," she said. "And because it came from me, it was easy to shrug me off. And when it came from friends, he just felt we were all judging -- or misjudging him.
"He's been a star and successful since he was 16. Defeat to him wasn't an option, and he didn't know how to take it or handle it."
In the jockey's room, Pincay remembers Desormeaux arguing constantly with other jockeys.
Another former Maryland jockey, Chris McCarron, said: "You could see him frustrated and angry.
"And you have to give him a lot of credit for changing it. It was very humbling for him. But he sat back, looked at the rise and semi-fall, and realized he needed to change some things. He changed his attitude."
The climb back
Baffert gave Desormeaux a chance to prove he really wanted to change. "And I was eager to listen," said Desormeaux, 28. Every morning from May to July, Desormeaux went to the track and exercised Baffert's horses. Then he was allowed to ride a few of them.
"They were not the pick of the stable," Desormeaux said. "I road a lot of first-time starters."
But every day he set out to change people's minds. Eventually, he changed Baffert's. Mandella also started using him more again. And trainer Neil Drysdale hired him last October as his No. 1 rider.
Around Hollywood Park, the pairing of Drysdale and Desormeaux dTC is viewed with some disbelief. Even in the best of times, Desormeaux was known for his flamboyance and cockiness. Drysdale's idea of an acceptable rider is his former top jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, a low-key Hall of Famer.
"I think Kent simply lacked maturity," said Drysdale, as he watched one of his horses roll in a pile of sand in the Hollywood Park stables. "And then, when things didn't go well for him, he lost his confidence. But I was told he was ready to try again with a new attitude. He came back more humble."
Drysdale's stable tied the record for most stakes wins in a season with 14 at Santa Anita this winter, with Desormeaux aboard for 12 of them.
"I saw his earlier, shall we say, antics, but I was only concerned with my horses," said Drysdale, who trained 1992 Horse of the Year A.P. Indy. "Since he's been with me, we've developed a good rapport. He's concentrated and he listens. You know, I think he is much more interested in the horses than before. He's riding most of my horses and knows he's going to ride them again. He was always talented. Now, I'd say the difference is he's a horseman."
Desormeaux said he is thankful for this second chance. He has ridden a total of 89 winners this year, including Real Quiet, and he is second in the country in money won, at $5.2 million.
As he returns to Maryland, "to my home, to the place where I started my racing life," he said he has learned how to say "thank you" to owners and trainers. He said he has come to realize a lot of people look at the horses "as their kids," and he has come to understand that he should be thankful for the opportunity of having them in his charge.
"It was easy to come to where I fell off the face of the Earth," Desormeaux said. "It has been a lot harder to climb back on. It was the most humbling experience of my life."
Pub Date: 5/15/98