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Friday, May 25, 2001

Kentucky Derby winner also a success in Japan

Staff writer

California-based American jockey Kent Desormeaux made Japanese racing history this past Sunday as he took home first prize in the prestigious filly classic, the Oaks at Tokyo Racecourse.

The two-time Kentucky Derby winner became the first foreigner to win the race. He was the first to have even ridden in it.

"I'm still in shock," was his first comment as he met the press postrace.

But for anyone following the 31-year-old rider's star-studded career, winning came as no surprise.

The Louisiana native shot to the front in 1987, just a year after obtaining his license, when he topped all jockeys in the United States with 450 wins. Two years later, he became the third jockey ever to claim the title for three years straight when he rewrote Chris McCarron's record of 546 wins in a year with a total of 598. In 1992, he bested the U.S. national list with $14.1 million in earnings and captured his third Eclipse Award. But in December of the same year, tragedy struck.

Desormeaux was run over at Hollywood Park, and suffered multiple fractures to his skull. He was unconscious for 36 hours.

Miraculously, he not only clung to life but resumed racing, and became, in 1995, the youngest rider to tally 3,000 wins. Dogged by a slump until his '98 Kentucky Derby win aboard Real Quiet, the young jockey was once again on top, and back in the Derby winner's circle in 2000 on Japanese-owned Fusaichi Pegasus. Earlier this year, Desormeaux cleared 4,000 wins.

Desormeaux had long ago caught the eye of Japan's leading trainer Kazuo Fujisawa, who in 1998 expressed an interest in inviting him to ride in Japan (foreign jockeys can ride for three months a year if invited by a Japanese trainer and owner, and if they are granted a license by the Japan Racing Association). At a critical time in his career, Desormeaux was reluctant to take time away from the American circuit. This year, however, when the invitation came from not only Fujisawa, but leading breeder/owner Teruya Yoshida as well, Desormeaux went for it. He began riding on the national circuit here on April 21.

One of the deciding factors behind his move to Japan, was Desormeaux's 2-year-old son, Jake. Born deaf, Jake underwent surgery earlier this year to receive a cochlear implant, an electronic device that enables one to hear by stimulating the inner ear nerves with electrical signals relayed from an external speech processor. Jake now requires constant therapy, being spoken to over and over to help him learn to respond to new sounds. With national-level racing held only on weekends in Japan, as opposed to five days a week in the U.S., the setup allows Desormeaux precious time with his son. Desormeaux's wife, Sonia, and his two sons have now joined him for the remainder of his stay.

Desormeaux, speaking after a morning workout at Miho Training Center in Ibaraki Prefecture, gave his insights into the makings of a top-level jockey.

Simply put, Desormeaux says, his job is knowing how to keep his horse happy.

"A happy horse is a fast horse," he says. "Getting along with the horse is first and foremost. Secondly, balance is very important. I have to be a great passenger for the horse, stay out of his way while encouraging him to race as fast as he can."

Naturally, a good jockey has to have horse sense, and that means "knowing when a horse needs to be told to run and when a horse needs to be asked to run, when to be feminine, when to be masculine, when to be bossy, when to be nice."

Horse sense, explains Desormeaux, who says he's "half horse," comes largely from keen observation and reading reactions.

"I wasn't born with horse sense. I was given horse sense by being born with them and always being around them."

The jockey likens it to trying to read minds.

"It's very challenging and it feels very good inside when you win because you feel like you've made a connection. You feel like they understood what you needed and gave it to you."

Long before the gates open, Desormeaux hits the racing sheets. He also watches race videos involving his mount or his competition and tactically prepares with data from previous races.

"My job is not just to know my horse and myself. I have to know every horse in the race. Know your competition. That includes the jockeys.

"After I do that, my job is to take all of these factors and position my horse in the race to give my horse the best chance. No matter how you look at the numbers, though, the bottom line is to be comfortable. If my horse was struggling to keep up and I thought tactically he needed to be in a different spot, then I'd give up that spot to make sure he was comfortable. I call an audible."

Racing for a jockey is not all about horses, however. A lot of politics are involved as well.

"There's more politics on that track than you could ever imagine. With everything we do, we have to be politically correct with our answers."

Indeed, in racing, not only the prize money is at stake. Reputations (and a lot of egos) are on the line. For the jockey, it is a constant dance of diplomacy searching for the words to tell the story without stepping on toes. It's not always easy.

"Sometimes you've had a bad night at home. Sometimes you're upset with your kids or upset with your wife and you've got to come to work and smile and be this happy-go-lucky person that people want to be around. It's not a one-on-one game, like a baseball batter hitting the ball. I have to go out there and deal with people and be a people person all the time. Sometimes you just don't feel like it."

But, Desormeaux adds, "You can never let 'em see you sweat."

The right attitude also involves a lot of footwork. Going around the stables after morning work, seeking out people at the racetrack for a congratulatory handshake, meeting trainers, meeting owners, taking an interest in them and their horses, talking to the media. The work of any jockey doesn't start on the horse, and it doesn't end off it. "I'm out there campaigning for new rides every day."

And thoughtful, considerate, articulate, with an attitude as professional as his riding skills, Desormeaux's campaign tactics are winning ones.

But what gets him through the bad days?

"My competitive spirit," he says without hesitation. "I cannot stand to be No. 2. There's No. 1 and there's nothing else. When I start getting a little sour, I think, 'OK, there's a decision you have to make. Do you want to be just someone who's hanging around, or do you want to be No. 1?' It's a choice."

In 1988, Desormeaux rode in his first Kentucky Derby, and finished 16th in a 17-horse field. Tens year later, on his seventh try, he won the most coveted event in American racing.

"It was so emotional. Before I could raise my fist in joy, I was crying."

"A childhood dream coming true," is how he describes his first Derby win. His entire career flashed before his eyes, from the first time he left the starting gate. Tears streaming down his face, Desormeaux found himself thinking, "How did I get here?" That same question may have crossed Desormeaux's mind at the finish line of the Japanese Oaks last Sunday. A touch of the surreal was definitely in the air.

This coming Sunday, Desormeaux takes the reins of Born King in the Japan Derby. One of the most prestigious races in Japan, the Derby is at long last being opened to foreign-bred stock, the first time in its 68-year history. And with a two-time Kentucky Derby winner in the lineup, it will surely be a race to remember.

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