The culminating moment of Kent Desormeaux's rebirth as a jockey came as the 15 horses raced for the far turn at Churchill Downs. There was more than a half mile to run in the Kentucky Derby, and Desormeaux was moving along freely in sixth place on his mount, Real Quiet, six lengths off the pace, when he suddenly found himself caught in a perilous squeeze—between a pair of tiring horses coming back to him and a posse gaining from behind. What to do now? he thought.
The Derby had unfolded perfectly for Desormeaux and Real Quiet—a bay so narrow as a yearling that he was nicknamed the Fish—with Desormeaux hugging the rail early and then angling his colt out two wide in the run down the backstretch. Now the half-mile pole loomed, and Real Quiet seemed about to be swallowed by horses. "At that moment, it was like everyone just crisscrossed," Desormeaux said. "The speed stopped, and here came the posse from behind, and I was in the middle."
Unflustered, Desormeaux tugged gently on his right line, swimming the Fish to the outside behind his charging stablemate, Indian Charlie, and instantly his colt delivered a surge of speed. At that point Desormeaux reached down and took hold of him, resetting the bridle and steadying him into long, rhythmic strides. All week long trainer Bob Baffert had favored Indian Charlie, the more talented of his two colts, and the betting public had concurred on Saturday, sending Charlie off as the Derby favorite, at 5-2, while making Real Quiet the fifth choice at 8-1. As Charlie swept for home, snatching the lead from Old Trieste and looking for all the world like a Derby winner, Desormeaux hit the gas and his colt came bounding like a stag to Charlie's side. Jockey Gary Stevens, one of the leading riders in the world, glanced to his right and knew at once that he was riding a beaten horse.
"Go on with him, 'Meaux!" Stevens yelled.
Such a scene would have seemed unlikely just 14 months ago, when, struggling in a sport that had once celebrated him as the next Bill Shoemaker, Desormeaux had no reason to imagine that he would be collaring the Derby favorite on the last turn at Churchill Downs this year. By March 1997, two months before Stevens won his third Kentucky Derby (on Baffert's Silver Charm), Desormeaux had alienated so many trainers and fallen so far from grace that he was scrounging for mounts in the stable area at Santa Anita. "Every morning I was there exercising horses for Bob Baffert, more or less begging for an opportunity to ride for his stable," he says. "Things were not as they used to be, I wasn't doing as well, and that is a very, very humbling experience."
Few riders had risen faster than Desormeaux, who grew up on a farm in Louisiana's Cajun country riding horses and, for $2 an hour, pulling a 35-foot plow on his father's tractor, barely able to see over the steering wheel. In 1986, at 16, he started riding at little Evangeline Downs and the next year hauled his tack to the Maryland circuit, where he was the nation's leading apprentice rider and won the first of his three Eclipse Awards. He was bright, athletic and capable, and race-riding came easy to him early. Perhaps too easy, perhaps too early. "I was very lucky very fast," he says.
In 1989 he rode a staggering 598 winners, still a single-year record in the sport, and after moving to Southern California in 1990, he became a leading rider in the most competitive of American jockey colonies, working out of Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar. He won his 3,000th race in 1995, at 25, making him the youngest rider in history to reach that mark. But by then, Desormeaux's lack of professionalism in the saddle had made him the bane of many trainers, owners and handicappers. Most disconcerting was his penchant, when he knew he wasn't going to win but was still in contention for part of the purse, for failing to ride hard to the finish, coming in third when he might have been second, or fourth when he might have been third.
Trainers and owners began to abandon him, leaving him scuffing dirt at Baffert's door. Baffert had watched him closely in his decline. "He just wasn't into it," the trainer says. "His mind wasn't right. These riders do so well, and they just take it for granted. He lacked that hunger. One day he came to me."
Baffert became his chief mentor and critic. Easing horses prematurely was only one knock against Desormeaux. He also had a tendency to ride mounts other than his own, purposely carrying horses wide or shutting them off. "You irritate other trainers and that hurts your business," Baffert told him. " Gary Stevens doesn't do that. Just ride your own horse."
Baffert also told Desormeaux that he wasn't working hard enough and insisted he show up at the barn every morning. "He came out and worked all my horses," Baffert says. The trainer critiqued Desormeaux's rides, sitting him down to go over what the rider was doing wrong, and upbraided him for being too hard on horses when pulling them up at the finish and bringing them back to be unsaddled too quickly. "You've got to take care of these horses," Baffert told him. "That's how you make your living."