A career launched with modest expectations led to almost surreal accomplishments for Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux.
Desormeaux was born in Maurice, La., on Feb. 27, 1970. He was around horses at an early age since his father, Harris, operated a bush track known as Acadiana Downs. He thought he reached the big time when he was riding at Evangeline Downs, in Lafayette, La., as a precocious 16-year-old.
“I just wanted to be someone who could compete at Evangeline Downs,” he recalled. “I didn’t know anything else.”
He possessed almost an innate knowledge of horses, though, and that would serve him extremely well. “I knew horses from grooming them long before I rode them,” he said. “I always felt I had an understanding of what a horse was thinking from the time when I was very young.”
It can take decades for a jockey to become established; many lack staying power. Desormeaux’s rise was meteoric. He journeyed to Maryland and won the Eclipse Award as the nation’s leading apprentice rider in 1987. He topped the nation in victories for three successive years beginning in 1987 and culminating with a record 598 wins in 1989.
That single-season mark, which still stands, brought him a second Eclipse Award as the top rider in North America in 1989. He produced yet another Eclipse in 1992. His soaring confidence led him to join the extremely demanding southern California circuit and allowed him to attain still greater heights.
Desormeaux gained his first Breeders’ Cup victory when Kotashaan reached the winner’s circle in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) in 1993. His sure handling allowed the filly Desert Stormer to dust the boys in the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I). Also in 1995, at age 25, he became the youngest jockey to reach 3,000 victories. Two years later, he would be the youngest to bank $100 million in purse money.
Success in Triple Crown races soon followed. He gained the first of three Kentucky Derby (gr. I) triumphs with Real Quiet in 1998, followed by Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 and Big Brown in 2008. One of his most emotional triumphs occurred in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) in 2014. He scored an upset with Texas Red, saddled by his brother, Keith, an accomplished trainer.
Although he surpassed 5,700 victories and $260 million in earnings, Desormeaux has endured his share of personal setbacks and disappointments. When he discussed his regrets during a recent phone interview, he noted his issues with alcohol by saying he needed to “stay out of the bottle.”
On the track, two Triple Crown bids failed. Many thought Desormeaux would go on to the historic sweep with Big Brown, a convincing winner in the opening two legs. But it was not meant to be. He pulled up an exhausted Big Brown at the top of the stretch in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
Desormeaux admits Real Quiet’s Belmont loss is “very haunting.”
“If I rode Real Quiet in the Belmont nine more times, I would win all nine, especially with hindsight, knowing what I know,” he said.
Real Quiet provided such an explosive move before the final turn and took such an authoritative lead that he reacted poorly to not having competitors around.
“I would have waited longer,” Desormeaux said with benefit of hindsight. “Real Quiet was not tired at all. He just gawked on the lead. He pulled up. Victory Gallop put his nose in front of him on the wire.”
The desire to win more spring classics—and perhaps take another stab at the Triple Crown— continues to drive Desormeaux as he approaches his 46th birthday.
“I think that’s the only reason I’m still riding,” he said. “I want more of that.”
Desormeaux gained invaluable knowledge about horses as a youngster through 4-H program.
He won his first stakes race aboard Godbey in Maryland City Handicap at Laurel Park on Dec. 13, 1986.
Desormeaux was honored by his peers with a George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 1993.
He was the first non-Japanese rider to win a classic race in Japan.
He earned his 5,000th career win with Bella Attrice on July 27, 2008 at New York’s Saratoga Race Course.