As this is written, a young race rider named Kent Desormeaux (pronounced Does- or -moe) has his project on hold. He is two races short of breaking Chris McCarron’s record for races won in a year.
It is not to be confused with winning the Triple Crown or even the Santa Anita Handicap--Earl Sande never did it, nor Eddie Arcaro--but it is an attention-getter. Johnny Longden used to win it when he put his mind to it. Bill Shoemaker used to win it almost by accident.
Shoe was the first to break the 400-win barrier. Locked in a spirited ride-off with an Eastern favorite, Tony De Spirito, Shoe topped out at 485 in 1953.
It was 20 years before anyone broke that. Then Sandy Hawley topped the 500-win mark with 515 in 1973. But his score didn’t last long. Chris McCarron got on 2,199 mounts the very next year and brought home 546 of them.
It is this record jockey Desormeaux is taking dead aim on this week in Maryland. It appeared for a time this summer as if the 19-year-old Desormeaux would be breaking the 600 mark. In fact, 700 was not out of the question. He had 350 by late June and everything he got a leg on turned into Man o’ War.
The young Cajun has a way with horses. But it may be that he will be celebrated one day not for his contributions to the sport of kings but to the business of Madison Avenue.
I am sure we are all familiar with the intrusions of the world of commerce into the world of sport. The Sun Bowl has become the John Hancock Bowl. Golf tournaments are named after banks, credit card companies, cracker manufacturers, motor car distributors. We can probably expect the Beatrice Foods British Open any year now.
The Indianapolis 500 long ago anticipated the market. The cars and drivers there have long since looked like 200-m.p.h. billboards. European cycle races look like the Yellow Pages on wheels. The Olympics were taken over lock, stock and barrel by the corporate interests in the 1984 Games. Tennis tournaments--and tennis players--are for sale to the highest bidder.
There is some suspicion that jockeys have, on occasion, been for sale to the highest bidder, too. But what Kent Desormeaux was willing to do for money was not pull a horse but wear a sandwich board. Not “Eat at Joe’s,” or “Soon at a Theater Near You,” but an ad for the casino outfit, Caesars World.
It seemed a reasonable enough proposal. After all, there was all that space on his back and down his legs. The horse didn’t care. It was a matter of indifference to the bettor, who doesn’t care what the jockey wears, only that he’s trying.
But the track needed smelling salts. Carry advertising on his back? On a race track? Horrors!
Now, buying any part of a jockey is always a dubious enterprise. But this is a case in which the purchasers want him to win. They want that ad in the winner’s circle, not dying on the backstretch.
Besides, advertising in sports is as American as peanuts and Cracker Jack. The old-time ballparks used to be festooned with ads for everything from Gem razor blades to Bull Durham tobacco.
Calvin Coolidge said the business of America is business. Well, the business of business is advertising. It’s the American genius. When General Sarnoff of RCA blocked the introduction of pay radio, he said it was because the highest goal of radio should be to move goods. That was its loftiest function, to sell.
The good general might have been of the opinion that was the primary goal of American sports, too, to keep the pipelines flowing and the marketplace flourishing.
If so, Kent Desormeaux is in the best traditions of the American way. He’d just like to help the economy keep going by renting out the space on his silks--or his boots or helmet if they want them. The Maryland Racing Commission was mortified when the idea was proposed. But isn’t there a race called the Budweiser Million? Didn’t Chrysler buy up the Breeders’ Cup this year?
Is there a tennis player alive who doesn’t wear the manufacturer’s label prominently on his shorts or shirts? Or headband? Do golfers wear logos on their caps? Track runners get paid for wearing a name brand of shoes.
You don’t just get a riding title sitting on top of 3-5 shots at Santa Anita or Belmont. You run around the countryside. Shoemaker used to run down to Caliente on Sundays to pad his numbers.
Desormeaux would ride all day at Maryland, then jump on a train and ride at night in New Jersey. You get on cheap claimers, unknown 2-year-olds, four-footed sociopaths who might run you into a concrete wall. It’s not easy becoming an advertising medium.
Kent Desormeaux just wants to strengthen the economy. If A.J. Foyt can do it, why not Kent Desormeaux? Because his other reward--if you can call it that--is that he’s going to move up with the big boys now--Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and New York.
He’s not going to win any 500 races there. And he may have plenty of space available. That’s the American way, too. Get the sponsors while your ratings are up.