Last Saturday morning, Kent Desormeaux went to work at Laurel (Md.) Race Course needing only five victories to break the world record for races won by a jockey in a year. As he sat in the jocks' room waiting for the first race, he talked about the days and nights he had had to ride to get this far and how he had stayed motivated in his chase to break Chris McCarron's mark of 546 wins set in 1974. "I think I aged 10 years this year," said the 19-year-old Desormeaux. "But it was pressure I was putting on myself, not from anyone else, making myself fight and grind. There were some nights I wouldn't win any races, and I felt beat, just plain dead tired. I wanted to quit. But then I'd win the next day and I'd get all pumped up again. I'd tell myself I was one race closer."
His odyssey began at the end of last year, when he and his agent, Gene Short, carefully mapped out his assault on the record. Desormeaux, who is from Maurice, La., deep in Cajun country, had won the Eclipse Award as the nation's leading apprentice rider in 1987, and he had won all the major Maryland riding titles in his three years of riding there. The time had come to move on to something new. So Short got out his calculator and figured that if Desormeaux won two races a day, or 50 a month, he would not only break the record but win 600 races in one year. Desormeaux's reaction? "Get out of here!"
"But I had put the idea in his mind." says Short.
Now it was up to Desormeaux to make it a reality. He won his first race on Jan. 2, at Laurel, and was off and running. In February and March he won an astounding 125 races in 59 days, including 28 winners in one eight-day stretch.
A few months later, for five weeks in May and June, Desormeaux became a commuter jockey, riding during the daytime at Pimlico and then taking the train from Baltimore to Philadelphia so he could cross the Delaware River and ride nights at Garden State Park in Cherry Hill, N.J. "Those five weeks out of town helped. We salvaged 25 winners," says Desormeaux. "But it was such a grind." Nevertheless, the kid hung in there and kept on his 50-wins-a-month pace.
By Sunday Nov. 19, he had only 10 victories to go for the record. But Laurel doesn't race on Mondays, the card was canceled Tuesday because of high winds, and the track is dark again on Wednesdays. On Thanksgiving Day a lot more than the pursuit of a record almost ended for Desormeaux when, in the stretch of the third race, his mount, a 3-year-old filly named Double Exclusive, suddenly went down. "She just went out from under me," Desormeaux said, "and she skidded on her back legs for about 25 yards before she fell." Double Exclusive had broken her back (she was taken from the track to a barn on the backstretch where she was later destroyed).
After the accident, Desormeaux picked himself up, walked a few steps and then fell to his knees on the track. "All I could think of was the record," he said. "I raised my arms and thanked God I didn't get hurt." He finished the day with three wins and added two more on Friday and two on Saturday, which set the stage for his run at the record on the Sunday card.
He was on 11 mounts but had only one winner—a 5-year-old gelding aptly named Horse Talk. That win left him at 545, one short of tying the record.
He still has more than a month to make it to the big six-oh-oh. Now the only thing standing between Desormeaux and the major tracks is his indecisiveness. He can't decide whether he wants to ride in New York or in California. He's leaning toward New York, but then again he has never been to California. He may get to test himself against the West if trainer Michael Pino runs a colt named Ten Keys at Hollywood Park on Dec. 10. If Desormeaux chooses California, he'll be riding against the likes of McCarron, a newly elected Hall of Famer, who would be only too happy to provide the kid with a few more lofty goals to shoot for.