Two pounds heavier and experiencing a minor hearing problem, Kent Desormeaux set out Friday to re-establish himself as the country’s No. 1 jockey.
In the first two races he rode at Santa Anita, it was like old times. As a rival horse came off the rail in the stretch run of the fifth race, Desormeaux brought Shrewd Vixen through tight quarters for a one-length victory.
An hour later, Desormeaux was in the winner’s circle again, after he had split horses in the stretch with Slerp for a half-length victory in the $61,500 Ack Ack Handicap.
No matter how many races a jockey wins--and Desormeaux won 361 last year as his horses earned $14.1 million to give him the national money title--there is always doubt among trainers and fans when a rider attempts to come back after being injured.
“I think he answered all the questions with those first two rides,” said veteran jockey Gary Stevens, who has been in Desormeaux’s position during his career. “You’ve got to prove yourself all over again to your clients. And if Kent had gotten beat by two noses in those two races, everybody would have been saying that he wasn’t his old self.”
Desormeaux, 21, was seriously injured in a spill at Hollywood Park on Dec. 11. His horse, Judge Hammer, dumped him shortly before they were going to win a race, and a trailing horse, Cartagena Slew, kicked Desormeaux in the head, causing multiple skull fractures.
Desormeaux was on his way to breaking Jose Santos’ record for purses when he was injured. Santos’ horses earned $14.8 million in 1988.
Desormeaux spent some time aboard his back-yard quarter horse, Taque The Moon, but didn’t get back on a thoroughbred until the Tuesday morning workouts at Santa Anita.
“One of the two I rode that day was River Special,” Desormeaux said. “So you know I wouldn’t have gotten on a horse of that caliber if I didn’t think I was ready.”
River Special is Desormeaux’s leading contender for this year’s Kentucky Derby. Laffit Pincay replaced Desormeaux when River Special won the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 20.
Desormeaux said he thought he would regain the mounts on most of the important horses he rode before the accident.
Friday, trainer David Bernstein hired Desormeaux to ride Stalcreek in the $79,650 Santa Ysabel Stakes. The 3-year-old filly, 6-5 second choice in the betting, finished fourth in a five-horse field, with Stevens riding the 9-10 Likeable Style to a two-length victory.
“Kent was scheduled to ride this filly at Hollywood Park, but he got hurt before she ran,” Bernstein said. “I think he’ll come back without missing a beat.”
Desormeaux’s other mount Friday, Boss Of Bosses, ran last in the last race.
Desormeaux said he has been unable to get his weight under 114 pounds, after riding at 112 before he was injured. “The hearing in my right ear is about 65%,” he said. “When somebody yells at me, I can hear them, but I’m not sure exactly where the yell is coming from.”
Shrewd Vixen, his first winner Friday, is trained by Craig Lewis. Once before, when Desormeaux came back from an injury, he rode three consecutive winners for Lewis.
“The fear of being called chicken is worse than fear itself,” Desormeaux said. “I wanted to erase that (possibility) right off the bat. I got lucky with Craig’s horse. We were able to get through.”
Desormeaux said he had butterflies in his stomach as he sat on Shrewd Vixen, waiting for the gate to open.
“It was like I was riding Best Pal in a $1-million race,” he said. “But after about 30 strides, it was like riding a bicycle.”
Desormeaux said he’s not 100% physically yet, and as a result, he’s riding a limited schedule this weekend. By next week, though, he said that his agent, Gene Short, would be taking as many assignments as they can get. Despite missing the last three weeks of the year, Desormeaux rode in 1,568 races during 1992.
“I played basketball for three weeks while I was recuperating,” Desormeaux said. “But you’re using different muscles. After riding four horses today, my legs are pounding and my muscles are sore.”
As for Best Pal, Desormeaux’s return coincides with the comeback of the 5-year-old gelding. Sunday, Best Pal will run in the $150,000 San Pasqual Handicap, his first race since last May. After he and Desormeaux won four of five starts early last year, for $1.6 million in purses, Best Pal was sidelined the rest of the season because of a shin injury.
“I’d like to make another run at the (money) record,” Desormeaux said. “But right now, $14.8 million looks like it’s a long way away. But if it’s in sight next October, I’ll give it a shot.”
Horse Racing Notes
Excavate drew the fence in Sunday’s 1 1/16-mile San Pasqual Handicap. Outside him in the eight-horse field are Memo, Berillon, Best Pal, Reign Road, Marquetry, Jovial and Provins. Berillon and Marquetry are coupled in the betting, and Marquetry is also entered in today’s San Marcos Handicap. . . . Kent Desormeaux’s victory aboard Shrewd Vixen came in the first grass race Santa Anita has run since Jan. 1 because of the rain. . . . A crowd of 10,848 was at the track Friday, after Wednesday’s and Thursday’s cards had been postponed because of small fields. The rain had prevented trainers from working many of their horses.
An audit by the Daily Racing Form showed that Eddie Delahoussaye is not as close to the 5,000-winner mark as first believed. Officially, Delahoussaye’s victory Friday was No. 4,969. Earlier, it had been announced that Delahoussaye was four winners short of 5,000. . . . Canadian-based Sandy Hawley, who was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame last year, begins another winter at Santa Anita. He has the mount on Provins in the San Pasqual.
So many significant accomplishments have been produced by horses that have run in the 11-year-old El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows that this year’s nine-horse field will be hard-pressed to carry on the tradition. The 8-5 favorite for today’s $200,000 running is Lykatill Hil, a $30,000 yearling purchase who won the California Juvenile on a muddy track at Bay Meadows on Jan. 1. Gary Go Go, who finished a half-length behind Lykatill Hil last time, is also running in the 1 1/16-mile rematch, as is Brinkstone, who was three lengths farther back in third place. Here’s the field: Gary Go Go, Offshore Pirate, Woodbridge, Tacit Wine, El Atroz, Bold Lacey, Brinkstone, Lykatill Hil and Bat Eclat. Offshore Pirate, who’ll be ridden by Pat Valenzuela, is the second choice at 3-1, and El Atroz is 4-1. Russell Baze, who won 433 races last year, leading the nation, will be on Lykatill Hil for the fifth consecutive time. They have had three victories and one second together, all at Bay Meadows. Three El Camino Real runners--Gate Dancer, Tank’s Prospect and Snow Chief--won the Preakness, and last year’s winner, Casual Lies, was second in the Kentucky Derby, third in the Preakness and fifth in the Belmont Stakes.