Battered jockey, reeling sport 12 furlongs from redemption

ELMONT, N.Y. -- The sight was stunning. Almost spooky.

There in the Belmont Park winner's circle Thursday afternoon was Kent Desormeaux, wearing the red-and-yellow silks of owner Mike Pegram, atop a thoroughbred trained by Bob Baffert.

They were a decade late.

One day short of 10 years ago, the three men should have been in the same winner's circle celebrating the grandest and most elusive prize in racing: a Triple Crown. Instead they missed by a nose in one of the most memorable and agonizing defeats in the history of the sport. Real Quiet, ridden by Desormeaux, was caught in the final jump of the Belmont Stakes by Victory Gallop, losing by a nose after an interminable review of the photo finish.

After winning the fifth race Thursday aboard Pegram's Under Serviced, someone pointed out the parallels to Desormeaux. He hadn't even noticed until it was mentioned.

"Now there's some irony," Desormeaux said.

Shakespearian, almost. This was the first time the jockey had ridden on this track in Pegram's silks since that Belmont. Now, two days before he would ride again in search of a Triple Crown, those silks served as one more reminder of that crushing loss.

And the role Kent Desormeaux played in making it happen.

The race seemed over. Real Quiet, purchased as a bargain-basement yearling for roughly the same price at the time as a decently equipped Honda Accord ($17,000), was going to win the Triple Crown.

The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner was a fat four lengths clear of Victory Gallop in the homestretch of the Belmont Stakes. The packed grandstand was roaring in anticipation of Real Quiet's hitting the wire. A year after narrowly losing the Triple Crown with Silver Charm, Baffert was going to win one for his good buddy Pegram.

And Kent Desormeaux was riding into racing immortality. For the first time since 1978, America would have a Triple Crown winner.

"Twenty years in the waiting!" shouted track announcer Tom Durkin. "One furlong to go!"

But by then, Real Quiet was slowing down. And Victory Gallop was surging forward. And that final eighth of a mile was taking forever.

With each stride, Victory Gallop inhaled the daylight between him and Real Quiet. By the time Desormeaux re-engaged his horse in the final strides, lurching him sideways into the path of Victory Gallop to slow his momentum, it was too late. The challenger had stuck a nose in front -- no more than six inches -- for his only lead of the day.

It was the only lead that mattered. It came at precisely the point where they snap the photo at the wire.

"In that one day," Desormeaux said nine years and 364 days later, "I learned how not to ride the Belmont."

When you lose a race at any level by a nose, the jockey is going to be second-guessed. When you lose a Triple Crown by a nose, the jockey bears an unimaginable burden of blame. He carries that scarlet letter for life -- or at least until a rare second opportunity presents itself.

Ten years after, an older and wiser Kent Desormeaux gets a chance to make it right aboard massive favorite Big Brown.

"He gets a mulligan," Baffert said.

Almost everyone agrees that Desormeaux urged Real Quiet forward too soon in that 1½-mile marathon on June 6, 1998. Everyone but Desormeaux, Baffert and Pegram.

Desormeaux says his only error was asking Real Quiet for an explosion at the top of the stretch that day, when a race of this distance is more suited to inexorably grinding forward without great acceleration. Baffert generously opined that Real Quiet did it to himself, losing focus in the stretch and gawking at the array of photographers instead of finishing his business. Pegram, who never says a bad word about anybody, won't blame Desormeaux either.

"He had more on the line that day than any of us," Pegram said. "He had to make a judgment call, and if you live by the sword, you die by the sword.

"He rode him the same way he did in the other two races [the Derby and Preakness]. It just didn't work out."

But that's the thing: you cannot ride a horse in the Belmont the way you ride a horse in the Derby or Preakness. The race is longer, the turns wider, the premium on patience all the greater.

Desormeaux won the first two legs of the Crown with devastating moves on the turn at Churchill Downs and Pimlico Race Course. But when he sent Real Quiet to the lead at roughly the same spot in the turn in New York, a full six furlongs remained to be run. In other words, an eternity.

"At the time, I thought he moved too soon," said Hall of Fame jockey and ESPN analyst Jerry Bailey, who studied that Belmont this week. "I still think he did, but I can understand why he did."

There might have been a good in-race reason, but the result left Desormeaux open to every potential nitpick. To some, that premature charge seemed symptomatic of the clouded judgment that afflicted Desormeaux during the heady three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont.

He spent much of those three weeks trying to cash in on his rare and fleeting fame. The 28-year-old Desormeaux already had made a fabulous living to that point, but he viewed the '98 Triple Crown bid as his chance to pick up endorsements that normally go to mainstream athletes.

So Desormeaux hired an agent -- not a jockey agent who arranges mounts with trainers, but someone to line up outside income. He rang the opening bell on Wall Street before the Belmont. He made an appearance at Yankee Stadium. He was caught up in the money-making moment.

"He lost focus a little," Baffert said. "It kind of turned me and Mike off when he hired an agent."

"Kent was focused," said Pegram, ever the diplomat. "When he got on that horse, he was ready to ride."

"I think Kent in some ways thought he was bigger than the game," said one of Big Brown's owners, Michael Iavarone. "He realized this game can turn on you in a heartbeat."

But part of the beauty of racing is that the game can turn back in your favor in a heartbeat as well. Kent Desormeaux is living proof of it.

Cajun jockeys almost always come with vivid stories attached. They tend to quit school and start riding on the bawdy bush tracks early, growing up fast and rough. Their lives tend to have more twists and turns, more pratfalls and comebacks, more daily drama than a full season of "The Real World."

So it should come as no shock that Desormeaux, a product of Maurice, La., has gone through some extraordinary boom-and-bust cycles. At age 16, he won his first stakes race. As a teenager, he won more races than any other jockey in America over a three-year span. He followed the Real Quiet success with a second Derby triumph, aboard Fusaichi Pegasus, in 2000.

But FuPeg was beaten as a huge favorite in the Preakness. Combine that with the Real Quiet loss and the fact Desormeaux could be a difficult, opinionated pain in butt, and business began to slowly dry up.

Once you get the stink of a slump upon you, as they say in racing, it's tough to find rides. Desormeaux found himself newly humbled, handing out business cards and searching for rides about five years ago in California.

"I've learned a lot of the politics of the game," Desormeaux said, "and how much politics do matter."

In other words, he couldn't continue being a diva and get away with it -- because he wasn't winning at a rate that owners and trainers would tolerate it.

During that time, Desormeaux received his greatest lesson on perspective yet. His son, Jacob, is afflicted with Usher Syndrome -- he has cochlear implants to help him hear after being born deaf, and he is steadily losing his eyesight. Jacob has had 17 surgeries to help him deal with his problems, including 11 on his ears.

Winning a Triple Crown while Jacob, 9, still is able to see it has become a priority for Desormeaux. But not as big a priority as simply enhancing his youngest son's quality of life and enjoying what he has.

"I work hard," Desormeaux said. "But it's not the end of the world when things don't go properly at work. As long as I'm healthy, that's what matters. I've learned the value of good health."

Along the way he has learned the redemptive value of a horse as talented as Big Brown.

Over a steak dinner and a few bottles of wine with Iavarone and other members of IEAH Stables, Kent Desormeaux talked himself onto the back of the horse who would help solidify his standing among the all-time great jockeys.

He wanted to ride IEAH's new purchase, Big Brown. The colt had run just once under its previous ownership, but that smashing 11¾-length win had brought bidders flocking. IEAH won out and sent the colt to trainer Rick Dutrow, whose normal first-call rider is Edgar Prado.

But Iavarone didn't consult Dutrow. He listened to Desormeaux's pitch, then told him that, if he committed to Big Brown through the Triple Crown, he would get the call.

"I told Kent I was putting him on a horse I thought could win the Triple Crown," Iavarone said.

Dutrow was not pleased, and told Iavarone he had to break the news to Prado. Four dominating Big Brown victories beneath Desormeaux since then have made Dutrow a convert. He's now riding more horses for IEAH and Dutrow.

But at this point, only one ride matters. Saturday evening in the Belmont Stakes -- the race that has kept Desormeaux's career curriculum vitae glaringly incomplete.

"This," Baffert said, "is the defining race of his career."

The Triple Crown bid is now 30 years in the waiting. Twelve furlongs to go.

That's the distance left to lift an entire battered sport and redeem a single battered rider. Thanks to the peak-and-valley decade since Real Quiet was beaten at the wire, Desormeaux should be far better equipped to handle the immense burden that will accompany him every step around Belmont's sweeping oval Saturday.

"Kent will always be Kent," Pegram said. "He's just a passionate guy, he's going to have an opinion. But the one thing you can't take away from him, he can ride a racehorse.

"He's got an advantage in this one because he's been there before. I just hope he gets the monkey off his back."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.