The rider flourished under Baffert's counsel. The trainer started riding him last July, and by the end of the summer Desormeaux had won the Del Mar riding title, with 40 wins, his first such championship in three years. This winter, with 89 wins, he took the Santa Anita riding title. Of course, when he became Real Quiet's regular jockey on Dec. 14, winning the Hollywood Futurity on the colt, he was just beginning to thread his way on a path that would lead to the top of the stretch at Churchill Downs. There, he blew past Charlie and slashed and scrubbed his way to the wire, holding off Victory Gallop to win by half a length, with Charlie finishing third. It was Desormeaux's first Derby victory in seven starts.
The finish left three men levitating above the Downs in the hazy late afternoon light. There was Baffert, who not only had picked the colt out of the Keeneland sale in September 1996 but also had helped engineer the resurgence of his rider, with his second Derby victory in a row. There was the colt's owner and one of Baffert's best friends, Mike Pegram, who owns 22 McDonald's franchises and paid a measly $17,000 for the Fish on the trainer's advice. "Can you ever figure it?" an ebullient Pegram asked as he wandered from the winner's circle to the press center. "How do you figure it? How can you have this much fun?" Then there was Desormeaux himself, who had lost his way but found it again.
"By being so ignorant and young, I slowed my success down," he said. "Everything ended for a while. I wish I had not been so immature."
As Desormeaux and Real Quiet rushed under the wire, the rider raised a fist high in the air. He was thinking of his first Derby, when he was 18 years old and finished 16th on Purdue King in 1988, and of his grandmother, Laurabelle. "When I crossed the finish line today, I just started crying because when I came to ride in my first Derby, my grandmother died. Those emotions went through me, and I thanked my grandmother for being there all the times that she was."
Ninety minutes after the Derby, Desormeaux was taking a hot shower, washing off the dirt and sand that had been thrown in his face during the race. He was still trying to sort through all that he was feeling, thinking how the victory had been made more meaningful by the struggles he had been through over the past three years, how content and fulfilled he felt, when someone tapped him on his shoulder. It was jockey Craig Perret, who had won the 1990 Derby on Unbridled. "Welcome to the club," Perret said.
"There's no club like it," Desormeaux replied.
And welcome, as a professional at last, to the profession.