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He Rides to Top of Class : Horse racing: Desormeaux has risen above the rest by tactically making all the right moves.


DEL MAR, Calif. — Kent Desormeaux already has won three Eclipse Awards, led the nation in purse winnings and set an all-time record for victories in a single year. The 23-year-old jockey almost certainly will break many more records before his career is over.

Yet it is not the statistics or the honors that best define Desormeaux. Plenty of jockeys enjoy success and acclaim because their reputations enable them to get the best mounts. What is most impressive about Desormeaux is to watch him ride, day in, day out--in cheap claiming races as well as important stakes.

I never thought I would see a jockey as smart and shrewd as Angel Cordero Jr., but Desormeaux may be the best racing tactician ever. Other great jockeys frequently are associated with a preferred style--Cordero with his aggressiveness from the gate, Pat Day with his patience--but Desormeaux adapts himself to the track, the horse, the conditions of a particular race. His instincts are so good that he sometimes seems almost psychic.

On the opening day of the Del Mar season, the racing strip appeared to give a slight edge to front-runners. The next day, in the first race, Desormeaux was riding a speed horse, Astrometric Star, and handicappers assumed he would pop out of the gate and go to the front.

But for reasons that defied understanding at the time, Desormeaux took hold of the filly coming out of the gate, dropped back, got to the outside and circled the field--to win easily. He won the fifth race that day by swooping wide too. By the end of the day, most bettors and most jockeys realized that the rail was bad, that a bias existed that favored horses on the outside. Desormeaux had sensed it before the day's races even began.

As that anti-rail bias persisted for nine days, jockeys were regularly trying to avoid being pinned on the inside. But then, on Aug. 8, the bias mysteriously vanished, and Desormeaux was scooting through along the rail, finding running room because his rivals were determined to stay wide. He won five races that day.

Desormeaux is so good because he augments his natural physical skills with a studiousness rare in his profession. Marylanders saw the innate talents when the teen-age apprentice broke records at Laurel and Pimlico.

"Back then, when I was a kid, I just went out and rode," Desormeaux said. "I just did whatever I did the day before." But since he moved to California, he has raised the level of his game.

Desormeaux said: "I spend at least a half hour before the races studying the Daily Racing Form and figuring out where I'm going to be and what I'm going to do. I try not to make a race so prearranged that I'm on a one-way street. Doing that is my desk job, and it makes me more stressed out than my physical job."

He makes his strategic decisions according to his judgment of his horse's chances: "If I'm on a weak horse who needs every tactical advantage, I'll ride differently than if I'm on a favorite. If I'm on a 3-to-5 shot, I'm looking for the Pino Parkway"--the five-wide move, free of any trouble, which is a favorite of Maryland's Mario Pino.

Whenever he is on the track, either riding in a race or warming up his mount, Desormeaux is thinking and observing.

As he gallops before a race, he is trying to get a feel for the track: Is it deep on the rail? (That's why he rode Astrometric Star as he did.) If he's not riding in a race, he watches closely on television.

One might think this would be standard operating procedure for any jockey, but it's not. Bettors and trainers are regularly frustrated by jockeys who don't seem to have even a rudimentary understanding of what is likely to happen during a race they are riding.

Desormeaux seems attuned to every nuance of the game.

He's dominating the best jockey colony in America. Often, such success by a rider is attributed to mystical powers and attributes.

In Bill Shoemaker's case, his strength always was cited as his magical hands and his ability to communicate with a horse.

With Desormeaux, however, there is no mystery. He is so dominant because he observes, he studies, he thinks. And because the basis of his success is cerebral as much as physical, he is becoming a better and better rider as he ages.

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