"The Kid" is all grown up
Eventually, everyone gets old -- sooner more often than later.
Back in the day, I remember my parents giving me the occasional weekday off from school for good behavior. The reward often was a trip to one of Maryland's racetracks. I know that's not exactly the stuff Dr. Phil would recommend in a good-parenting book. But almost 30 years later that school-of-hard-knocks' education seems to have done at least a few guys okay in their career paths.
All this brings me to Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico, where Kent Desormeaux rides back to Old Hilltop on top of the racing world. You know him as a three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey and the pilot of Big Brown.
I knew him as "The Kid."
In fact, just about everyone who watched Maryland racing in the mid to late-1980s called him "The Kid." It's most likely because pronouncing a Cajun name like Desormeaux when you live a few miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line is nothing short of butcher-shop material. People in my family still call him "desser-mo" and I recall winner's circle-side fans mustering just about everything short of "Desi Arnaz" when trying to come up with the right pronunciation.
What wound up happening most often was this win-machine, young apprentice just became known as the "The Kid." Most fans vociferously welcomed him to the winner's circle at Laurel and Pimlico -- "Here comes The Kid! ... Atta boy, Kid!" Back then, maybe even more so than today, he had that contagious smile and enthusiasm, not to mention that squeak-box voice and Cajun accent that is unmistakable when he gets excited after a win.
Racing was so much more colloquial then. When Desormeaux was in pursuit of his Eclipse Award in 1987 as the nation's leading apprentice, he rode double duty in Maryland and surrounding states at night to pad his record and stats. Late in the year, my dad and I watched him rule the roost at Laurel one afternoon and then we decided to pull the doubleheader ourselves and trek north about three hours to Penn National for the night racing.
You see, this was the era before full-blown simulcasting made local riders national names. When we got to Penn National, we laughed at the 6-1 price on Desormeaux's first mount and went to the windows with as much cash as a two-card, weekday gambling fest would allow our modest lifestyles. Meanwhile, the locals wagered in relative cluelessness as a future Hall of Famer was about to sweep his night's mounts. Sickos like us were along for the all-day ride, however.
Make no mistake: there will be no overlays when Kent Desormeaux hears Maryland, My Maryland this Saturday and takes Big Brown to the starting gate as the overwhelming favorite for the Preakness. Anything over 1-5 odds will be a surprise since both Big Brown and Desormeaux have ascended to the class of household names, especially in racing's gambling circles.
And while there will be minor touches of sentiment for Hagerstown, Md. native and Big Brown trainer Rick Dutrow, most in the crowd will curl smiles for the homecoming of Desormeaux. He had that rare ability to win races in tremendous amounts, like never-before-seen, and yet still remain a fan favorite. He reached 3,000 career wins faster than anyone ever to slip on boots. Winning jockeys quickly become price killers and often the hardcore race fans' worst enemy. Can't beat 'em; can't join 'em. But that didn't happen with Desormeaux in Maryland. He never fell out of public favor.
Only when he hit the national stage did things turn sour for Kent D. He admits his ego spiraled as his career ascended to ride on the elite Southern California stage, where he won 11 riding titles during the 1990s. Celebrity basketball games, restaurants, guest starring roles on "Bay Watch," and money beyond any young professional's wildest dreams all worked together to make winning races more secondary than necessary. His morning work ethic became questioned by trainers. Soon, the guy who rode first call for Bob Baffert was no longer the flavor of the month or year.
After a pair of non-descript years in 2005 and 2006, Desormeaux made his first big career move in more than a decade. He came east; hired new agent Mike Sellito and worked his way into first-call status with Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. Soon the wins started piling back up at places like Belmont and Saratoga. This winter at Gulfstream Park in Florida, he partnered with Big Brown for the first time, and the rest has become history.
Can Big Brown make that historic run to a Triple Crown? He's only one-third of the way there as the Preakness approaches, but Desormeaux knows what it takes to win the Triple Crown perhaps more than any rider alive today. After all, he came about two inches and a 20-minute photo finish away from immortality at the 1998 Belmont Stakes with Real Quiet.
"The Kid" is all grown up now. At age 38, his superficial ego is replaced mostly by confidence and sound family values. In fact, after winning the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, instead of basking in champagne and celebration, he put on his boots and went back out for the nightcap at Churchill Downs to ride in a maiden race -- and won by daylight.
At least some things never change.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. Your can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing related at Jeremy@horseplayerpro.com.
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