It’s a New Year for Jockey Kent Desormeaux
Kent Desormeaux was a record-setting jockey last year, at the top of his profession and basking in the warmth of a spotlight that rarely left him. He admits it: It got too easy back in Maryland.
This year, he’s just another kid jockey, trying to make it big at one of the biggest tracks in the world, and it’s not so easy anymore.
“In Maryland, we were big fish in -- well -- not a small sea, but a middle-sized sea,” Desormeaux said. “Now . . . " Now, at 20, he’s trying to get good horses while competing against one of the toughest groups of jockeys at any race track in the world, Santa Anita. He’s been bumped and shoved and abused--treatment generally accorded newcomers.
He’s served out two suspensions, one for a bumping incident that happened in New Jersey, another for a similar incident at Santa Anita.
From Feb. 14, when he first rode at Santa Anita, through the end of March, he had 27 winners, well off the pace of the track’s leading jockey, Gary Stevens, who was in the 90s. And, well off the pace that saw him ride a record 597 winners last year, mostly at Pimlico and Laurel race tracks in Maryland.
Still, he’s surviving.
“In Maryland, I was getting kind of lackadaisical,” Desormeaux said. “I was riding the best horses, and it was getting kind of easy. I’m riding a lot of bad horses here, and I’m getting some of them home. When I get some ammo, we’ll be as hard to handle as anybody.
“I’ve got to get some more of these bad horses home, get out in the mornings and work hard and get some more good horses to ride. I know I’ve turned some heads.”
At the Hollywood Park meeting starting later this month, Desormeaux believes he can crack the top four.
“He’s made a believer out of a lot of negative people,” trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. “He’s going to make a big impact on the local scene.”
When Desormeaux arrived at Santa Anita in early February, he began serving a 10-day suspension for a bumping incident at the Meadowlands.
“That kind of slowed things down,” he said. “I went back to zero, and I couldn’t wait to get my feet in the irons.”
He used the time to get to know the track, the other jockeys and the trainers, “so I got to meet people on the backside instead of introducing myself in the paddock.”
Then, in March, he was suspended again for a similar incident and sat out the first week of April.
“Everybody out here pretty much took their shot at me, to see if they could throw me off stride,” Desormeaux said. “I realized that we’d have to earn each other’s respect. I already respected them. Now, I think we’re settled down and everybody pretty much has welcomed me home.”
Desormeaux, a Louisiana native, took a vacation in January, got married and moved to California.
“It was a tough decision to leave, but there wasn’t much more to accomplish in Maryland,” he said. “I’m a go-getter. I’m always looking for tasks to overcome. Pride was going to take me somewhere else.
“Out here, the money’s best, the weather’s the best, I’m riding in the best company. I don’t have to ship to Florida in the winter, and you add up all those things -- here we are.”
Desormeaux broke Chris McCarron’s 1974 record of 546 wins on the last day of November at Laurel. That earned him the Eclipse Award as the nation’s top jockey, only two years after he was voted the country’s top apprentice.
He needed 11 victories in the final two days of the year to reach his goal of 600. He got five on Dec. 30, twice finishing ahead of Hall of Famer Bill Shoemaker during the Maryland stop of his farewell tour. On Dec. 31, though, he rode only three winners, falling three short of his goal.
Desormeaux has not been quite as successful racing at Shoemaker’s home track, but there have been flashes of brilliance.
“He’s a riding little devil,” fellow jockey Julie Krone said.
On March 16, Desormeaux rode Solar Launch to his second straight featured-race victory at Santa Anita. And, on March 24, he rode three straight winners.
Desormeaux has become a favorite of Santa Anita trainer Craig Lewis, and for good reason. Lewis had a horse, Light The World, who was 0-for-20 until Desormeaux rode him to victory.
“Obviously, he has proved his worth,” Lewis said, and offered half his stable to Desormeaux.
Desormeaux also has ridden for Lukas, the nation’s leading trainer. In his first trip back to Maryland, he rode the Lukas-trained Bright Candles to a third-place finish in the Pimlico Oaks on April 7.
“I couldn’t expect to come over here and win four or five races a day, twice a week,” Desormeaux said. “It just wasn’t going to happen. I’d be overwhelmed with one victory a day.”
With one victory a day, he’d also be making more money than he did in Maryland.
“I’ve already made more money in half as many races as I could make in Maryland,” he said. “If I can be in the top four here--I don’t have to be a the leading rider to destroy what I earned in Maryland.”