Fame is the spur which the clear spirit doth raise To spurn delights, and live laborious days.
So Kent Jason Desormeaux, an affluent Louisiana cattle rancher at age 19, rides all day and will ride all night if necessary to break the record for races won by a jockey in a year.
“The fame is a big part of it, for sure,” Desormeaux said last Friday before riding the card: all 10 races at Laurel, Md. “Yes, the prestige. It gives me the desire, the motivation.”
And of course, as Sir Edmund Hillary said of lofty goals: “Because it’s there.”
“Yes, it’s a capable goal,” Desormeaux said. “That’s not the word, but it can be reached.”
It can be buried. The record is Chris McCarron’s 546, set as a Maryland apprentice in 1974. It has not been seriously threatened, but Desormeaux is in position to put the number as far out of sight as DiMaggio’s 56.
His four winners from seven mounts Thursday gave him 163 for the year. That pace, uninterrupted, would give Desormeaux 725.
“Maybe,” the young (he turned 19 on Feb. 27) man concluded, with a wink, “that could put you on the back of the Wheaties box.”
“He’d never let you know it,” said Gene Short, Desormeaux’s avuncular 33-year-old agent, “but he does like being recognized in public. Most of the time he’s so mature it’s like there’s a 30-year-old man in that 19-year-old body. But sometimes he acts his age.”
Short recalled a time, a thousand winners ago, when the Cajun prodigy moved in with Gene and Kathy and the two kids. With fame scratching at the door, Short’s text at the dinner table was that a man, even at 16, ought to keep his humility in direct proportion to his success.
It worked, eventually. It’s hard to be humble with a $28,000 check for a month’s work in hand, but Desormeaux works at it.
“You can be confident and not tell anybody,” he said. “You should let people tell you (that you’re good). If you say, ‘Yeah, I know,’ you’re cocky. If you just say ‘Thank you,’ you’re confident.”
He’s good. “He’s won more races in 2 1/2 years,” a racing official said, “than most of these guys will win lifetime.” The question had been raised of envy by his peers, as Desormeaux rides the best-chance horses, day after day.
“It’s like brothers,” Short said. “Didn’t you get mad at your brother, even fight him?” Then Short gave his bottom line: “There’s no jock in that room Kent doesn’t like.”
And no fights to speak of. Compared to the mano-a-mano regulation of the Louisiana bush tracks that were Desormeaux’s boot camps, things that happen occasionally in the Laurel jocks’ room are “skirmishes,” Short said.
The boy earned the right to be a man and moved out of the Short menage, on his own. But even as things like the Eclipse Award (champion apprentice of 1987) rolled in along with the money, there were frustrations, irking disappointments.
“He’d come over to us and blow up, scream,” Short said. “It was hard for us as a family, but it was his natural maturing. I had to remember he was acting like a teen-ager.
“Kathy gets the credit, putting up with me for 12 years and Kent for three, raising two kids at the same time.”
If Kathy hadn’t made room, there might not have been a career. Brenda Desormeaux was “upset, to say the least,” when Gene Short discovered her 95-pound child at Evangeline Downs and proposed to take him to seek his fortune at Louisiana Downs in Shreveport.
“You can imagine a mother’s dilemma,” Brenda said. “Kent was an honor student, president of the student council. He could have been a doctor, or anything he decided to be.
“He played basketball, football, baseball and was good at them all. They had a speech competition and he won it. He tried golf and won his flight. I wasn’t able to turn loose a 16-year-old who hadn’t finished high school, to let him go live in some apartment with a bunch of boys.”
The compromise was to have Kent move in with the Shorts and finish school in Shreveport. It would take only a few weeks. “He couldn’t handle both,” Mrs. Desormeaux said, “so he took the graduate-equivalent exam and got one of the highest scores in the state.” So there was a chair on the platform for Desormeaux when North Vermillion High in Maurice, La., graduated its 1988 class. Then Kent broke the news that he wasn’t going to college.
He’s doing all right without a degree. The 30-year-old man in that 19-year-old body is a shrewd, demanding businessman, Desormeaux’s agent testifies. But his parents are sitting at the table when the big deals are made.
Kent’s father, Harris Desormeaux, manages the jockey’s burgeoning cattle acreage (86 acres owned and almost 1,000 leased) at DeRidder, 90 minutes away. He has a degree in agronomy from the University of Southwestern Louisiana. His wife, raising six children (four younger than Kent) attended USL at night for two years to get an associate degree in business. Kent’s elder brother, Keith, is an assistant to Maryland horse trainer Tom Caviness and has a degree in equine science from Louisiana Tech.
“I’m still worried about Kent, but I’m proud,” Mrs. Desormeaux said. “All that money was a concern, but he’s handled it well. He hasn’t changed. He’s had good guidance from Gene and Kathy, and the business manager we put him with.”
Before Kent makes the Wheaties box he might be poster boy for Herbalife. His mother has been advocate and salesman of that nutritional supplement for five years. Herbalife’s protein shake (vanilla, chocolate or strawberry) has become an element of his morning routine.
That came out in Desormeaux’s answer to the fundamental question: After another year of 10-a-day riding and, at last, the added concern of weight control, is it still fun?
“Hey, every time,” Desormeaux said. “I still wake up and say, ‘I’m going to work riding horses for a living.
‘Self,’ I say, ‘get up and go ride.’ It will always be fun.
“And,” he added with that stagey wink, “winning helps.”
Desormeaux’s day no longer begins before dawn. If he is working a horse for a favored client, he arises at 7. From his Columbia, Md., apartment (the loan just came through to build a four-bedroom “contemporary” in the same area), in his Porsche 911 convertible, he can be at Laurel at 7:15.
Back home at 9:30, Desormeaux has his protein shake. He returns to the Laurel jockeys’ room by about 10:45. “Read the (Daily Racing) Form, see what’s going on,” he said.
He studies the Form. “I seen a lot of guys come and go,” said Dave Bejshak. “This kid’s got a gift that very few have.”
Bejshak has been a jock’s valet for 25 years. A valet polishes boots and saddles and cares for the other “tack” a rider uses. The good ones are equal parts concierge and Jewish mother, and some know more than one way to play Sancho Panza. When the mood is right, Bejshak joshes Desormeaux with affectionate obscenities; when it isn’t, he shuts up.
“The kid can think,” Bejshak said. “He knows the abilities of every rider in this room.”
“And then,” Desormeaux said, summing up his morning routine, “I check my weight. I tack 11 or 12.” That means he could total 111 or 112 pounds with all his tack (riding equipment).
Not anymore. That morning, March 16, Desormeaux on the scale without a stitch of tack weighed 112 1/2. During the three days racing was being switched from Pimlico to Laurel he had flown home and had more nutritional supplements than planned.
“Crawfish,” Desormeaux said. “Cooked every way imaginable.”
Despite 40 minutes sweating in the hot box, he tacked 114 that day. And that’s the way it is now, realistically. Kent is no longer 5-feet-2. That was the kid who weighed 102 when the late Marvin Moncrief put him on his first stakes winner two years ago.
“My brother has a crawfish farm right behind the house,” Brenda Desormeaux said. “How could a Cajun come home and not gain weight?”
There was more than mother’s cooking to lure Desormeaux home. Sonia, who works as a beautician now, and Kent have known each other “since we were 14 or 15,” he said.
She is fun and of good character, Desormeaux said, “and I think she loves me.” They have mentioned marriage to each other and Sonia is planning to move to Maryland soon.
“She has to find a roommate, and I mean not me,” Kent said. “We’re Catholic and my mom wouldn’t stand for that.”
“It has been discussed,” Brenda Desormeaux said. “Very strongly.”