Battered jockey, reeling sport 12 furlongs from redemption
ELMONT, N.Y. -- The sight was stunning. Almost spooky.There in the Belmont Park winner's circle Thursday afternoon was Kent Desormeaux, wearing the red-and-yellow silks of owner Mike Pegram, atop a thoroughbred trained by Bob Baffert. They were a decade late. One day short of 10 years ago, the three men should have been in the same winner's circle celebrating the grandest and most elusive prize in racing: a Triple Crown. Instead they missed by a nose in one of the most memorable and agonizing defeats in the history of the sport. Real Quiet, ridden by Desormeaux, was caught in the final jump of the Belmont Stakes by Victory Gallop, losing by a nose after an interminable review of the photo finish. After winning the fifth race Thursday aboard Pegram's Under Serviced, someone pointed out the parallels to Desormeaux. He hadn't even noticed until it was mentioned. "Now there's some irony," Desormeaux said. Shakespearian, almost. This was the first time the jockey had ridden on this track in Pegram's silks since that Belmont. Now, two days before he would ride again in search of a Triple Crown, those silks served as one more reminder of that crushing loss. And the role Kent Desormeaux played in making it happen.
The race seemed over. Real Quiet, purchased as a bargain-basement yearling for roughly the same price at the time as a decently equipped Honda Accord ($17,000), was going to win the Triple Crown.
In that one day, I learned how not to ride the Belmont.
When you lose a race at any level by a nose, the jockey is going to be second-guessed. When you lose a Triple Crown by a nose, the jockey bears an unimaginable burden of blame. He carries that scarlet letter for life -- or at least until a rare second opportunity presents itself. Ten years after, an older and wiser Kent Desormeaux gets a chance to make it right aboard massive favorite Big Brown. "He gets a mulligan," Baffert said. Almost everyone agrees that Desormeaux urged Real Quiet forward too soon in that 1½-mile marathon on June 6, 1998. Everyone but Desormeaux, Baffert and Pegram. Desormeaux says his only error was asking Real Quiet for an explosion at the top of the stretch that day, when a race of this distance is more suited to inexorably grinding forward without great acceleration. Baffert generously opined that Real Quiet did it to himself, losing focus in the stretch and gawking at the array of photographers instead of finishing his business. Pegram, who never says a bad word about anybody, won't blame Desormeaux either.
I think Kent in some ways thought he was bigger than the game. He realized this game can turn on you in a heartbeat.
--Big Brown owner Michael Iavarone
Cajun jockeys almost always come with vivid stories attached. They tend to quit school and start riding on the bawdy bush tracks early, growing up fast and rough. Their lives tend to have more twists and turns, more pratfalls and comebacks, more daily drama than a full season of "The Real World." So it should come as no shock that Desormeaux, a product of Maurice, La., has gone through some extraordinary boom-and-bust cycles. At age 16, he won his first stakes race. As a teenager, he won more races than any other jockey in America over a three-year span. He followed the Real Quiet success with a second Derby triumph, aboard Fusaichi Pegasus, in 2000. But FuPeg was beaten as a huge favorite in the Preakness. Combine that with the Real Quiet loss and the fact Desormeaux could be a difficult, opinionated pain in butt, and business began to slowly dry up. Once you get the stink of a slump upon you, as they say in racing, it's tough to find rides. Desormeaux found himself newly humbled, handing out business cards and searching for rides about five years ago in California. "I've learned a lot of the politics of the game," Desormeaux said, "and how much politics do matter." In other words, he couldn't continue being a diva and get away with it -- because he wasn't winning at a rate that owners and trainers would tolerate it.
I work hard. But it's not the end of the world when things don't go properly at work. As long as I'm healthy, that's what matters. I've learned the value of good health.
Over a steak dinner and a few bottles of wine with Iavarone and other members of IEAH Stables, Kent Desormeaux talked himself onto the back of the horse who would help solidify his standing among the all-time great jockeys. He wanted to ride IEAH's new purchase, Big Brown. The colt had run just once under its previous ownership, but that smashing 11¾-length win had brought bidders flocking. IEAH won out and sent the colt to trainer Rick Dutrow, whose normal first-call rider is Edgar Prado. But Iavarone didn't consult Dutrow. He listened to Desormeaux's pitch, then told him that, if he committed to Big Brown through the Triple Crown, he would get the call. "I told Kent I was putting him on a horse I thought could win the Triple Crown," Iavarone said. Dutrow was not pleased, and told Iavarone he had to break the news to Prado. Four dominating Big Brown victories beneath Desormeaux since then have made Dutrow a convert. He's now riding more horses for IEAH and Dutrow. But at this point, only one ride matters. Saturday evening in the Belmont Stakes -- the race that has kept Desormeaux's career curriculum vitae glaringly incomplete.
This is the defining race of his career.
The Triple Crown bid is now 30 years in the waiting. Twelve furlongs to go.That's the distance left to lift an entire battered sport and redeem a single battered rider. Thanks to the peak-and-valley decade since Real Quiet was beaten at the wire, Desormeaux should be far better equipped to handle the immense burden that will accompany him every step around Belmont's sweeping oval Saturday.
"Kent will always be Kent," Pegram said. "He's just a passionate guy, he's going to have an opinion. But the one thing you can't take away from him, he can ride a racehorse. "He's got an advantage in this one because he's been there before. I just hope he gets the monkey off his back." Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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THE TRIPLE CROWN
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• Forde: Dutrow's Big Brown busts at Belmont
• Moran: New York roar stays pent up
• Cronley: Hard to understand a loser
• Cronley: Mopping up
• Moran: Stranger things have happened
• Paulick: Big Brown vs. Greatness
• Forde: Gangs of New York
• Plonk: Sign of the times
• Finley: Un-American
• Finley: Big Brown not great, yet
• Plonk: The Dutrow Projects
• Paulick: We've been here before