Jockey Kent Desormeaux is ready for the ride of his life
Rick Dutrow is more than happy to explain that Saturday's Belmont Stakes is not a rider's race. He is, in fact, more than happy to explain that any race in which Big Brown is a participant is not a rider's race. Or a trainer's race. Or an owner's race.
"All we need to do is stay out of the horse's way,'' Dutrow said this week. "I don't need to do anything special. [Jockey] Kent [Desormeaux] doesn't need to do anything special.''
We have learned over the course of the Triple Crown that this is Dutrow's style. He is a damaged and recovered human, by turns off-putting and endearing, a horseman respected for his skill by most others in his profession. And when you ask him about Big Brown, who will try to end a three-decade drought and become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner on Saturday, Dutrow tells you only that the horse is great.
"We made the first [Triple Crown races] look kind of easy,'' he said earlier this week. "I can't imagine this one turning out any different. He's better than these horses.'' To be fair, Dutrow's bluster is mixed with a healthy dose of humility. He takes little credit -- probably too little, depending on your view of trainers-as-geniuses -- for Big Brown's work, instead choosing to thank the heavens for putting this gifted athlete in his barn. "I'm just a lucky guy who got this horse,'' he says. "This horse, Big Brown.''
This is all more than fair. And refreshing. But for Kent Desormeaux, Saturday's Belmont is absolutely a rider's race.
Ten years ago Desormeaux came closer to winning a Triple Crown -- without actually winning it -- than any rider in history. Desormeaux won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness aboard Real Quiet and then was beaten in the Belmont Stakes by Victory Gallop by a nose. The finish was so close that few at Belmont or watching on television could discern the winner.
On that afternoon, Desormeaux moved Real Quiet toward the lead entering the sweeping second turn at Belmont, nearly three-quarters of a mile from the finish. On the YouTube of the race, you can hear the shock in race caller Tom Durkin's voice. "He's moving early, with six furlongs to go!'' Real Quiet rolled into the lead at the head of the stretch and opened up a wide four-length lead with three-sixteenths of a mile to run. "I actually felt what it was like to win the Triple Crown,'' says Desormeaux. "I'm sitting on a loaded gun, and I've already got four lengths. The race was over.''
Not quite. Victory Gallop, the 9-2 second betting choice in the race (Real Quiet was 4-5) and a dead closer, rolled into contention inside the eighth pole and caught Real Quiet at the wire. Several minutes were required to interpret the photo. A decade later, the last six furlongs of that race are still under scrutiny.
Many handicappers contend that Desormeaux moved too early on Real Quiet. Trainer Bob Baffert once was in that camp, but has softened over the years. "It wasn't that -- Real Quiet still could have won the race,'' Baffert told me recently.
This is Desormeaux's description of what happened in that race: "Real Quiet was a turn horse. He loved to make his move on the turn before we come for home. That's how he won the Derby and Preakness. So we're going into the turn at Belmont and he starts pulling me along. But at Belmont, there's still five-eighths of a mile to run. I figure that's too early, so I'm fighting him. Looking back, I should have let him roll. We would have won by 20.''