In the emotional atmosphere of the race track, it is sometimes difficult to look at jockeys coolly and objectively. We may be too busy cheering our personal victories and cursing our defeats to make dispassionate judgments about the riders' skills.
But racing fans at Laurel ought to pause and savor the day-to-day performance of young Kent Desormeaux; when he has graduated to the big time, we won't see anything like it again. Watching the 17-year-old at this stage of his career is a bit like having the chance to see Bobby Orr in a Junior-A league in Canada, or Larry Bird on the playgrounds of French Lick, Ind.
Desormeaux won 450 races in 1987 and earned the Eclipse Award as the country's best apprentice rider, but his statistics and his hardware could easily have been deceptive. Plenty of mediocre or even downright bad jockeys have earned the same distinctions. Moreover, it is easy to look good in Maryland, where the quality of the riding competition is so poor; Desormeaux is the state's third Eclipse Award-winning apprentice in the last decade.
I was skeptical of the teen-ager's achievements until I started watching him closely and critically, race after race, for this series of articles on Maryland jockeys. I discounted he would win many races because he was riding the best horse; I tried to evaluate the quality of his performance. And I am now a believer. I believe that if Desormeaux went to Santa Anita tomorrow, he could compete on nearly even terms against the strongest jockey colony in the world. If he continues to improve with experience and keeps his head together (always a key proviso when discussing young athletes in the modern world), he will be the best jockey in America.
What is so impressive -- and surprising -- about Desormeaux is that his greatest talent is one not ordinarily associated with youth. Young riders are expected to be strong, aggressive and fearless; Desormeaux is, too, but he also has a sense of racing tactics that usually comes only from years of experience.
Unlike so many jockeys, even top ones, who are associated with a particular favorite style, Desormeaux isn't regarded as a speed rider or a come-from-behind rider. His style is whatever suits a particular race.
On New Year's Day, Desormeaux was riding a filly named Fluctuating in a cheap claiming sprint at Laurel. Fluctuating always raced on or near the lead, but on this day she was entered in a field filled with quicker rivals. When Desormeaux came to the paddock, he told the filly's owner, "I'll circle and win."
Fluctuating broke alertly, as usual, but Desormeaux put her under wraps and permitted her to drop back to seventh place in the field of nine. Then she swooped around the field on the turn and won in a runaway.
Roughly 99 out of 100 jockeys and trainers would have concluded, from this impressive performance, that Fluctuating runs her best by coming from behind, and would have chosen to employ the same style in the future. Two weeks later, however, the filly was entered in a field with only a moderate amount of speed in the lineup. She was breaking from an inside post while the favorite, Avie Gate, was on the outside. This time, when Fluctuating popped out of the gate, Desormeaux let her roll. She was fighting for the lead with five other rivals, including Avie Gate, who was being hung out on the far outside. Fluctuating shook loose on the turn and held on to win over the favorite. The victories might have looked unremarkable, but if Desormeaux had used different strategy he probably would have lost both races.
It is one thing to conceive the proper tactics for a race and quite another to execute them. Desormeaux has the finesse to make horses cooperate with him, as he demonstrated in stunning fashion in the Chesapeake Handicap last month.
His mount, Endless Surprise, was a swift but one-dimensional sprinter who, in a 27-race career, had never passed another horse in the stretch. Because Endless Surprise was facing two similarly inclined front-runners, most handicappers assumed that the speed horses would run each other into the ground and set up the race for a closer. This is what happened -- except the closer was Endless Surprise.
The other speedballs went head-and-head for the lead, and Endless Surprise sat in the garden spot, third place, waiting for them to wilt. He never fought his jockey as speed horses will do when they are placed under unaccustomed restraint; he waited and rallied in the stretch as if he had been doing it all his life. Again, Desormeaux made his horse's victory look routine, but it was an extraordinary performance.
The kid is continually displaying new and varied facets of his talent -- his sense of pace with front-runners, his timing of stretch-runners' moves, his finesse, his strength. His weaknesses are few. He needs to improve his recognition of track biases; he wound up on bad rails at Laurel more than he should. His rare poor performances tended to come in clusters, suggesting that he may have days when his concentration lapses. But, at the age of 17, he has ample time to correct his minor flaws.
To improve, though, he should think about getting out of Maryland some day. Steward Bill Passmore, who had a long, distinguished riding career here, says that "good riders make you ride better," and Desormeaux is going to need tougher competition to elevate his performance to a much higher plane. He could easily grow complacent in Maryland, where his rivals graciously let him take the rail whenever he wants; he will find that the riders in other top racing areas aren't so obliging.
Desormeaux's agent, Gene Short, said he expects to spend the rest of 1988 in Maryland; he won't leave until he gets a solid opportunity, a connection with a top stable on a top racing circuit. When he does go on to show the rest of the world what a great rider he is, Marylanders will at least be able to say, "We knew him when . . ."
Tomorrow: Maryland's other competent jockeys.