When a jockey dominates a track the way Kent Desormeaux has done at Laurel, he can call his own shots. His services will be in such demand that he can choose to ride top horses in most races, and most of his winners will be obvious short-priced favorites.

Yet Desormeaux has confounded Maryland racegoers frequently this fall by appearing on improbable-looking animals.

A couple of weeks ago he took the mount on a horse named Misty Master, who was a plodding distance runner entered in a sprint, who was a turf specialist running on the dirt, who was trained by a little-known horseman, Peter Pugh. A day later, Desormeaux showed up on the back of Track General, who had finished a distant 12th against the same company in his previous start.

Even more amazing than Desormeaux having taken these mounts was their performance: Both horses won. Some racing fans might attribute these upsets to the 17-year-old jockey's magical powers. Those of us who don't believe in magic think that the explanation must be the skill of Desormeaux's agent, Gene Short, who selects the horses his jockey rides.

Short admitted he takes a lot of razzing from his fellow agents for his willingness to accept the mounts on bad-looking horses. "Some of them call me 'The Garbage Man'," he said.

If Short seems less picky than other agents would be in his position, the reason is that he has spent his whole career trying to ferret out horses with hidden virtues; he never before had the luxury of handling a rider whose services were in demand.

Short was raised in Hot Springs, Ark., where his family was in the construction business, but his passion was the local track, Oaklawn Park. He tried to reconcile both interests by working as a construction superintendent and a jockey agent at the same time. "I'd go to the track at 4:30 in the morning, then get to the construction site by 7:30. I had blueprints on one desk, racing form charts on another."

The construction job was paying the bills. "The jockey I had was terrible," Short said. "Nobody wanted him. I'd go see {leading trainer} Jack Van Berg looking for a mount, and he'd say, 'I wouldn't even let your jock gallop a horse for me.' "

When Short became an agent full-time, he was working for a more respectable rider, but he was bucking the competition of stars like Pat Day and Randy Romero, and he had to hunt for mounts whose merits weren't obvious and who came from lesser stables. Short couldn't have dreamed of the kind of prosperity he would enjoy with Desormeaux.

He had seen Desormeaux ride at little Evangeline Downs in Louisiana, and asked the apprentice to team up with him and go to Louisiana Downs. They fared well and, when the meeting ended, they chose to come to Maryland. Dave Vance, a leading trainer from Louisiana, was bringing a string of horses here, and offered to let Desormeaux ride them all.

When they showed up a year ago, nobody in Maryland had heard of Gene Short or Kent Desormeaux. "The other agents thought I was some hillbilly from Arkansas; they wanted to see if I had shoes," Short said. "I tried to learn who the leading trainers were and would introduce myself, and then I'd take Kent from barn to barn to introduce him. But he was just another bug boy whose name they couldn't pronounce."

His connection with Vance gave Desormeaux some early success and recognition. Trainers Gerald and Bud Delp knew the apprentice from Louisiana and used him, too. Then some of the most prominent Maryland trainers started jumping on the bandwagon. And pretty soon Desormeaux was the hottest apprentice rider the state has seen since the days of Chris McCarron.

"I'd go out to dinner," Short said, "and I'd come back three hours later and there would be 15 messages on my answering machine from trainers."

So that he could pick the best mounts, Short would make notes on every race, every day, trying to spot horses he wanted to ride in their next starts as well as those he wanted to avoid.

The toughest part of the job, though, was politics and human relations. Desormeaux can ride virtually every horse for four of the major trainers in Maryland: King Leatherbury, Barclay Tagg, Charles Hadry and Marvin Moncrief. Inevitably, there will be conflicts, when more than one of his prime clients wants Desormeaux for the same race.

"I want to make them all happy, but I also want to ride the best horse," Short said. "It's called Ulcer City."

Any agent would like to have the ulcers caused by booking mounts for the top race-winning rider in America, and that is why Short's peers are sometimes bemused by his willingness to ride horses who look somewhat marginal on paper.

But if Short can see some small virtue in a horse's record -- a drop in class, a flash of speed, a decent race three starts ago -- he'll take a shot if he has no other commitments.

"In my own mind," he said, "I'm not a garbage man. Or at least I'm a choosy garbage man."