Cover Story

Winner's Circle

by Nathan Stubbs

Maurice native and Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux has a revived career and a new perspective on life as he makes his second attempt at the Triple Crown.

Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Kent Desormeaux is less than half a mile from history. With three furlongs to go, Desormeaux guides Real Quiet past Grand Slam and Chilito, taking the lead. Coming around the final turn, Desormeaux cuts to the inside track, thundering into the final stretch.

Real Quiet pulls away and is six lengths ahead of the pack with one furlong to go. The ecstatic crowd is egging on Desormeaux, the 28-year-old jockey from Maurice, La., who’s moments away from securing horse racing’s first Triple Crown in 20 years.

In the final 16th of a mile, the unthinkable happens.

After sitting quietly back in sixth place for the majority of the race, Victory Gallup and jockey Gary Stevens come storming through the turn into the top of the home stretch. Stevens breaks Victory Gallup through the pack to the outside and rapidly begins closing in on Real Quiet, now coasting in the lead. Coming into the final 30-yard dash, Victory Gallup starts edging alongside the Triple Crown hopeful. Desormeaux works the whip, imploring Real Quiet not to let up. The two horses are neck and neck as they cross the finish wire, and the crowd is stunned.

Announcer Tom Durkin is going berserk. “It’s too close to call,” he cries. “Was it Real Quiet or was it Victory Gallup? A picture is worth a thousand words. This photo is worth $5 million. History in the waiting — on hold — till we get that photo finish.”

Roughly 20 minutes later, Victory Gallup is officially declared the winner. The finish line photo shows the colt’s outstretched nose an inch ahead of Real Quiet’s. Criticism of Desormeaux is swift after the race; pundits and onlookers claim he let Real Quiet break too early and allowed the horse to pull up in the final stretch. Kent Desormeaux has replayed his 1998 defeat at The Belmont Stakes more than a thousand times in his mind. “It was heart wrenching,” he says in a phone interview. “I think I put up the good fight and I did everything I knew how to do to win the race and unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be.” What haunts Desormeaux about the loss is that it came down to the slimmest margin imaginable.

“The only time that the winner actually was in front,” he says, “was that exact stride at the wire because that’s exactly when Real Quiet saw [Victory Gallup] and re-broke. He took off again, and in three jumps I was a length in front after the wire.”

A decade later, Desormeaux is getting a rare second chance at racing immortality. This Saturday, June 7, Desormeaux will once again be shooting for the Triple Crown, this time atop Big Brown, the heavily favored 3-year-old colt undefeated in five races, including impressive victories in the first two legs of the crown, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. Winning this weekend’s Belmont Stakes would make Big Brown and Desormeaux the first to complete the horse racing trifecta since Affirmed and jockey Steve Cauthen in 1978.

The 30-year Triple Crown drought is the longest in the sport’s history. For Desormeaux, who three years ago uprooted his family from California to move to New York in hopes of revitalizing his career, a win would write the final chapter of his comeback story and be the crowning achievement of a Hall of Fame career that has long been overshadowed by a race where he came up an inch short. “They’ll never ask me about Real Quiet again,” Desormeaux says.

Winning the Triple Crown is the childhood dream of every young jockey, and Desormeaux is no exception. Growing up in Maurice, where his father owned a bush track, Desormeaux foresaw his future success riding horses. Naturally talented, winning came easy to him.

But over the past decade, Desormeaux has struggled with both personal and professional hardships — adversities he says have made him both humbler and wiser. Now, at age 38, and likely in the twilight of his career as a professional jockey, Desormeaux may have destiny on his side.

“I know what it feels like to win a Triple Crown,” he says. “When I turned Real Quiet loose [in 1998], I knew I was the winner. And unfortunately, only God knows why, the horse pulled up in the lane and refused and decided to stop running. He certainly wasn’t tired. He just got lost on the lead and stopped striding for the wire.”

“I thank God I’m a religious man,” he continues, “because it just wasn’t meant to be. You know, God had a plan, and I hope that this was it, that I could come back now and I could realize the historical respect of this race.”

In Maurice, Desormeaux had an idyllic childhood. He took care of his own horse and helped his grandfather work the family farm. By age 13, Desormeaux was taking the Allis Chalmers tractor out on his own, winged plow in tow, to tend the fields — a job that earned him the money to buy his first saddle.

A gifted athlete, he excelled in several sports. He dreamed of one day playing point guard in the N.B.A. and prayed by his bedside for God to make him taller. “Growing up in Maurice,” Desormeaux says, “you either played basketball or you rode horses. Well, guess what, I rode my horse to basketball practice.”

Desormeaux’s mother, Brenda, remembers Kent always striving to compete and keep up with his brother Keith, who was three years older. The two had impromptu races on back roads; occasionally, Kent would be on his Shetland pony while Keith rode a motorcycle.

The younger Desormeaux also took after his father, an entrepreneur and jack of all trades. In addition to raising horses, Harris Desormeaux ran a local convenience store, sold automatic cattle feeder systems, had a landscaping business and a large emu farm. In 1977, he leased some farmland between Lafayette and Maurice and opened up Acadiana Downs, a bush track for amateur horse racing.

Soon after, Kent Desormeaux decided he wanted to become a pro jockey. At 15, he had a job exercising horses for his brother’s friend, Jeff Picard, a local trainer. Picard recalls Desormeaux being a fixture at his stables. “He would hang around and talk to everyone about everything,” Picard says. When Picard and his girlfriend would take off for Delta Downs on a Saturday, Kent would tag along, sleeping in the truck on the way back late at night. The next Sunday morning, he was up at the crack of dawn to exercise horses again. “You can’t find a 15-year-old to do that nowadays,” Picard says. “He had a very strong work ethic from a young age.”

Picard and others also began referring to Desormeaux as “Baby Shoemaker,” after Kent’s idol, Hall of Fame jockey Bill Shoemaker.

Picard will never forget one cold, rainy day when Kent insisted on continuing to gallop horses. “We should have called it a day,” he says, “but Kent was determined. He said, ‘If I’m going to be a jockey, then I need to learn to ride in these conditions.’”

“Well, next thing I know,” Picard continues, “the horse comes back, with no Kent.”

The aspiring jockey arrived back at the stables a half hour later, completely caked in mud. Picard and others were teasing him, but the fall only seemed to make Desormeaux more determined. Still dripping with mud, he looked up at Picard and made three predictions. “I’m going to win the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “And I’m going to be as famous as Bill Shoemaker.”

“And,” he added, “I’m going to marry Sonia.”

At the time Sonia and Kent weren’t yet dating. Sonia had just moved to town, and as Picard recalls, the two had only spoken on the phone once. “Two out of three ain’t bad,” Picard told Kent. “Sonia’s out of your league.”

Five years later, Sonia and Kent were married. “He proved me wrong on that one,” Picard acknowledges with a laugh. “He knew then what he was going to do, and he did it.”

Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Like other famous pro jockeys hailing from Acadiana, including Lafayette native Robby Albarado, winner of last year’s Preakness Stakes, and 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Calvin Borel of Catahoula, Desormeaux got his start at the bush tracks. “I used to live right in the triangle,” Desormeaux says. “Within 15 miles I could be at four different bush tracks. So it was a prevalent way of life — it’s everywhere around you.”

The tracks had races on open dirt tracks, typically plowed out of farmland. While it was illegal to collect entry fees and engage in betting, local sheriffs often turned a blind eye, occasionally attending the races themselves and even providing security.

At 80 pounds, Desormeaux was lighter than most other jockeys out at the bush track. “He looked like a baby,” recalls his mother, Brenda. “He had a baby face. He was 15 years old and maybe 4 feet tall.”

It wasn’t uncommon for owners to race riderless horses. They tied everything from cans to chickens onto saddles — anything they thought might help spook their horse into running faster. Desormeaux rode a couple of match races against riderless horses, including one where the horse’s saddle was wrapped with a heavy duty chain taken from the bed of the owner’s truck.

The bush tracks drew a raucous crowd, an element that kept local jockeys tough. “The bush track was anything goes,” says Picard. “There were no rules, no disqualifications. A lot of Cajun riders have been in these situations where they’re rough-housed, hollered at, called every name in the book. That helped them learn to deal with pressure situations.”

Pegged as an up and coming talent, Desormeaux moved up to riding as an apprentice jockey at Evangeline Downs. He lasted five weeks. In that short time, word spread about a prodigy bug boy (slang for apprentice jockey) they were now calling “peanut.” Agent Gene Short came down from Shreveport; after seeing Desormeaux, he was convinced the kid’s career was ready to take off.

In order to take up riding at Louisiana Downs in Shreveport, Desormeaux left home at the age of 16 and moved in with Short’s family in the summer of 1985. At Louisiana Downs, he was a consistent winner and impressed trainers with his natural ability.

Horse trainer Bobby Granger, from Erath, was one of the regulars at the time at Louisiana Downs. Granger once put Desormeaux on an out-of-town owner’s horse. The filly had only run in short races, no more than 4 ½ furlongs, and had a bad reputation for pulling up in the final stretch. Granger had Desormeaux ride the horse in one of the short races at Louisiana Downs and watched the horse finish in the middle of the pack. After the race, Desormeaux came up to Granger and told him he needed to run the horse in a long race. A mile or further, the jockey told him, and I’m going to win with her.

“I kept saying, ‘Hell, this filly’s never been past 4½ in her life,’” Granger remembers. What the hell, Granger decided, and entered the horse in a mile and a quarter race. The filly’s owner called him screaming and asking: “Are you crazy?” Granger told him it was Desormeaux’s suggestion.

“Man, he’s just a bug boy,” the owner retorted.

Desormeaux won the race, on about 50-1 odds. “It impressed me,” Granger says, “that a young kid just growing up, you know, hadn’t been riding that long, and he had figured that horse out, just by riding her one time.”

The more Desormeaux won, the more it went to his head, and he developed a reputation for being a bit of a hotshot.

“He was a little obnoxious,” Granger says. “His worst enemy was his mouth. He talks too much and gets himself in trouble. He couldn’t help himself.”

By November, after less than five months of racing at Louisiana Downs, Short was ready to take Desormeaux to race on the East Coast circuit in Maryland. Less than five months after arriving in Shreveport, Desormeaux dropped out of school, got his G.E.D. and headed north.

Brenda Desormeaux was heartbroken.

“It was a shock and a disappointment to say the least,” she says. “That was not what I envisioned for him. He was academically at the top of his class. A lawyer or a doctor or something — but not a jockey.” But her son was headstrong, and the Desormeauxs realized they had to let him pursue his ambitions.

“You could see it was a dream,” Brenda says. “We gave in not because we thought it was the best thing but thought he would find out for himself soon enough whether this was what he really wanted to do or not. And he sure did.”

In his first three years in Maryland, where he was dubbed the “Cajun kid,” he continually broke the record for most jockey wins in a year, winning the Eclipse Award for outstanding apprentice jockey in just his second year on the circuit. Desormeaux was tallying an unheard-of average of about two races a day. His 1989 mark of 599 wins still stands as an industry record (the previous mark was 549).

At age 17, he was on track to become a millionaire and bought his first Porsche.

In 1995, at age 25, Desormeaux won his 3,000th race, the youngest jockey to ever reach that plateau. Two years later, at 27, he became the youngest jockey to surpass $100 million in career earnings.

Winning was all Desormeaux knew. And when he lost his shot at the Triple Crown in 1998, his life changed.

Following the disappointment of the ’98 Belmont Stakes, Desormeaux was no longer horse racing’s No. 1 jockey. California’s top trainers, including Real Quiet coach Bob Baffert, stopped sending Desormeaux the prized mounts he expected.

“The more my business declined, the more I was getting beat,” Desormeaux says, “and then the more the finger would get pointed in my direction.” The jockey mouthed off at his detractors. “Then the more my business would decline,” he says. “That’s how that kind of wheel works in our business.”

The professional hardship paled in comparison to the personal one Desormeaux and his family soon faced. In 2000, his recently born son Jacob was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder prevalent in families of Cajun heritage that causes a loss of hearing and gradual blindness. There is no cure for Usher Syndrome. At age 2, Jacob was given cochlear implants to allow him to hear and learn to speak — but doctors have told the Desormeauxs that Jacob is likely to be blind by early adulthood.

“As parents, we want to be able to fix everything,” says Brenda Desormeaux. “Well, Kent couldn’t fix this. No amount of money could fix it, and so now you begin to rely even a lot more on your faith and it gives you a lesson in life. It humbles you.”

After discovering that a large percentage of people with the disease come from Acadiana, the Desormeauxs recently announced plans for an “Eye on Jacob” Foundation to help raise awareness of Usher Syndrome. (Kent Desormeaux also is heavily involved in the Desormeaux Foundation, which raises funds for the pro-life pregnancy center his mother helped start with the Catholic Church.)

Desormeaux has often said that his son’s ailment helped him gain perspective on both life and his career. “Losing the Belmont doesn’t hurt,” he recently told one reporter. “Having your son born deaf hurts.”

“My priorities have changed,” Desormeaux says. “And to be so frustrated and upset about not being able to win races even when I know I’m trying hard, the reality is that I have my health and you know, we’re all able to try again tomorrow.

“What’s really important is your loved ones around you,” he adds. “And I think that has allowed me to sit heavier in the saddle and be more relaxed out there. It’s helped me to focus. It’s made me a better rider because of that.”

Despite the backlash after his Belmont loss, Desormeaux continued to find ways to win. In 2000, he won his second Kentucky Derby with Japanese import Fusaichi Pegasus. That win helped open the door for Desormeaux in Japan, where he began riding for three months out of the year. In 2001, Desormeaux became the first foreign-based jockey to win a Japanese Classic, taking the Japanese Oaks aboard Lady Pastel.

“Moving to a fresher place like Japan I realized that maybe all I needed was a change of scenery,” Desormeaux says. After five years of splitting time between Japan and California, Desormeaux decided to make a permanent move, uprooting his family to New York for a fresh start. “Mario Pinot, one of my peers in Maryland, said it best,” Desormeaux says. “Not only does the world change but the racing industry goes through changes, and for a rider the toughest thing is to ride through the changes.”

With Big Brown, Desormeaux is once again at the pinnacle of horse racing, but he hasn’t forgotten his roots. On the racing circuit, Desormeaux has become close with other pro jockeys, like Robby Albarado, who share his rural south Louisiana background. “You feel like brothers,” Desormeaux says. “I mean, you’re just making their acquaintance and you feel like you’ve known them their whole life. That’s kind of how that feels.”

He also laments that the bush track training ground no longer exists for aspiring Acadiana jockeys.

“I don’t think, I know that Robby [Albarado] and Corey [Lanerie] are the last of the generation that are going to have had an opportunity to train in live racing such as we did, on a bush track,” he says. “It’s nonexistent anymore.”

While still on the track after winning this year’s Kentucky Derby, Desormeaux thought back to his first races. The horse named Skunkemup that he rode for trainer Dale White at the bush track in Mississippi. His first stakes win, at age 15, at Evangeline Downs on a horse named Miss Tavern. “I remember every stride of the race,” he says. “It felt equal to winning the Kentucky Derby. You feel like you’re just glowing inside and very overwhelmed with joy.”

Desormeaux’s also fantasized about coming back home to Louisiana. He envisions a big home “like in the movie Dallas,” with all his siblings and their families, only this one is on the Vermilion River.  “I would say that if it was up to me, when my saddle is hung on the wall, I will definitely be a neighbor of Maurice again soon.”

Right now, it’s hard for Desormeaux to look past the next race. Last week, having just made an appearance on the set of Regis & Kelly Live, he was feeling the good wishes of the nation.

“It’s crazy,” he says, “I just got a peck on the cheek from Kelly Rippa — that’s kinda cool.” Besides having a chance to win the first Triple Crown in three decades, Desormeaux is one of only three jockeys to get a second chance at the Triple Crown after a first bid fell short. Jockeys Bill Hartack and Ismael Valenzuela failed in their follow-up bids for the Triple Crown, but Desormeaux isn’t letting history or the pressure overwhelm him. “I think this time I’m more in tune to the historical magnitude of it all,” he says. “I’m feeling very blessed, fortunate and thankful. I’m just enjoying the ride.”