The frozen image of a photo finish confirmed the blunder in Laurel's seventh race Tuesday. The jockey on horse No. 1, high off the saddle, nearly squandered a certain second-place finish by riding nonchalantly.

Questioned on the casual effort the following day, the jockey, Kent Desormeaux, said, "I think my biggest problem is . . . I'll get a little sluggish when I'm {trailing in a race} or approaching the wire, and there's no one around me. I start easing up before the wire sometimes, and it looks bad, especially if it becomes a photo {finish}. No matter where I am, I've just got to learn to stay down."

Though he gave Maryland's jockeys an education in winning last year, Desormeaux knows that lessons remain.

Desormeaux, 17, is called "Pee Wee" by those who know him well and "The Kid" by those who don't, but there was nothing diminutive about his achievements in 1987. He led the nation with 449 winners -- 58 more than second-place Pat Day -- and is almost certain to receive an Eclipse Award Tuesday as America's outstanding apprentice. (His apprenticeship ended in August.)

From the bush tracks and minor leagues of Louisiana, Desormeaux hit Maryland in the fall of 1986. By spring, he began ripping through the standings, uprooting the state's marquee jockeys -- Donald Miller Jr., Mario Pino, Alberto Delgado, Vince Bracciale Jr. -- all of whom were resigned to supporting roles.

He robbed the drama from each subsequent race meeting. When Pimlico's session concluded Oct. 17, and Desormeaux was to begin at Laurel without his "bug" -- the weight allowance granted an apprentice -- Miller said, "He's no cinch to beat me this meeting." But within the first month, Miller had cause for reassessment.

Desormeaux ended 1987 with 99 winners at Laurel's fall meet. His closest followers were Allen Stacy (34), Clarence (JoJo) Ladner (33) and Mike Hunter (32). Miller tied for sixth with 26.

Desormeaux has forged the most profound impact of any jockey in Maryland since Chris McCarron in the mid-1970s. And it's McCarron's world record of 546 victories in a year that will command Desormeaux's attention in 1988.

"We've got 450 wins now, and I didn't ride out of town at all except for stakes," he said. "If I go somewhere and get hot . . ."

Desormeaux said he would ride evenings at Meadowlands and Garden State Park in New Jersey, even at Penn National. Charles Town, however, is out.

"My agent {Gene Short} is scared of that place," Desormeaux said. "He doesn't want me to ride there."

Desormeaux's dominance spurred speculation that 1987 would be his last year in Maryland, the jockey having outgrown the circuit. But Desormeaux said he will remain here for 1988, then consider the more glamorous and lucrative offerings of New York or California.

In making that commitment, Desormeaux also encouraged his father, trainer Harris Desormeaux, to come from Louisiana with a modest stable.

"I was a little hesitant on coming here," Harris Desormeaux said. "But {Kent} was lonely, he wants to see the family and all. But, really, I'm at a terrific disadvantage here because I don't want to take any business away from him. So I don't even name him on many of my horses."

Father and son have hooked up twice, both times with the gelding Volgograd. Claimed by trainer Desormeaux for $5,000, Volgograd won for $6,500 in his next start.

"It's funny, the way things have turned out," the elder Desormeaux said. "We discouraged him from riding horses. Not me too much, but his mother several times tried to talk him out of it because of the danger factor. She protested the whole operation for several months, until he just went out on his own. It was just something he had to do, and he did it . . . We're certainly amazed at what's taken place."

Desormeaux rode 2,207 races this year (winning 20 percent), but said fatigue never became a factor. "If anything," he said, "it gets you high on yourself. You're just rarin' to go. But you've got to be careful when things are going well. Every time you think you're high and mighty, something will knock you right down."

Desormeaux has benefitted from the expertise of agent Short, who has selected mounts without alienating some of Maryland's most prominent trainers: King Leatherbury, Barclay Tagg, Charlie Hadry, Marvin Moncrief.

"I tend not to know what I ride until I get to the {jockeys'} room," Desormeaux said. "Because my problem is, I get to counting: I'm going to win this one, I'm going to win that one. And if it doesn't go that way, it gets discouraging. On the other hand, when you just look at a race before you ride in it and say, 'I've got a shot,' you go out and ride hard without worrying how things are supposed to go."