Jockey Spotlight: Kent Desormeaux

Kent Desormeaux has experienced the highs and lows of being a professional rider on numerous occasions. Just this year Desormeaux won the Preakness Stakes on Exaggerator, then days later entered an alcohol rehabilitation program and wasn’t able to ride for nearly a month. Though his personal demons have gotten the better of him at times, he is unquestionably one of the best jockeys of all time.

Desormeaux was born in Louisiana, a state rich in horse racing tradition that’s produced great riders such as Eddie Delahoussaye and Joe Talamo. Desormeaux won his first race at Louisiana’s Evangeline Downs in 1986 before moving to Maryland, where he won over 1,500 races in less than four years. That included a 450-win season in 1987 that earned him the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Apprentice and an astonishing 597-win campaign in 1989 that secured him his first of two Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Rider.  He would win the award again in 1992, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2004.

Desormeaux chalks a lot of his success up to his ‘all-business’ demeanor when at work.

“Once I’m in the jockey’s room, I’m not there to watch TV or play Ping-Pong,” he told the New York Times. “I want to ride, and even one that’s up against it, maybe that’s where I can make a difference.”

“His dedication is unbelievable,” former agent Harry Hacek told Bloodhorse. “When several riders took off [one] day when it rained and track was muddy, he picked up a maiden in the last race for $25,000. This is a Hall of Famer doing this. He is so determined and so focused, he can’t be denied. He’s got the right attitude.”

Desormeaux’s hard work paid off for a long time, as he won the Kentucky Derby in 1998, 2000, and 2008, the Preakness in 1998 and 2008, and the Belmont Stakes in 2009. Desormeaux had a chance to win the Triple Crown with Real Quiet in 1998 but lost by a nose in the Belmont, then tried again in 2008 but his mount, Big Brown, didn’t fire and had to be pulled up.

“I get asked all the time about Real Quiet and Big Brown,” he told the New York Times. “It hurts that I’ll live in infamy. Who wants to be famous for the closest ever to almost win the Triple Crown?”

But those losses were not the nadir of his career; far from it.

Business started to dwindle for Desormeaux after 2010. He was riding less and less and even failed to crack the top 100 in earnings in 2014. Dale Romans was forced to take Desormeaux off his 2012 Belmont Stakes runner, Dullahan, after he failed a breathalyzer test in May.

“You can tell when he’s not acting right — he doesn’t ride right,” Romans told the New York Times. “But when the good Kent shows up, he’s the best rider in the country, and one of the best of all time. That’s what the shame of it is.”

By his own admission, Desormeaux hit “rock bottom” after his win in the 2016 Preakness aboard his brother Keith’s-trained Exaggerator.

“Preakness weekend I celebrated so hard I don’t even remember Sunday night,” he told the New York Daily News. “That’s when I decided, ‘This is too much.’ I made a phone call. I said, ‘I gotta stop.’ Not slow down. I tried that. I’ve been trying that for 15 years.”

His brother Keith, who was partially responsible for Kent’s career revival when he made him the rider on 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red, was relieved.

“He’s a man. As men, we’re responsible for our own decisions,” Keith told the New York Daily News. “I’m not gonna try to talk people into making right decisions. It’s got to come from inside. I’m glad [Kent] finally manned up.”

Things are looking up for Desormeaux as 2016 draws to a close. The 46-year-old rider had 20 wins, 10 seconds and 14 thirds from 81 mounts at Santa Anita’s fall meet, second to Rafael Bejarano by just two  wins despite having ridden 43 fewer mounts. And most importantly, Desormeaux has been clean and sober by all accounts since he returned from rehab in June.

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