Preakness, Kentucky Derby-winning jockey considers himself ‘luckiest man alive’

Randy LaBauve  |  5/19/2008 8:05:01 PM

A Louisiana native and former 4-H member, Kent Desormeaux and his horse Big Brown scored impressive victories at the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

The young horse was untested before the Kentucky Derby, and many were unsure how he would respond against an elite field. And the 38-year-old jockey was thought to be past his prime.

But the Maurice, La., native is now poised to win the Belmont on June 7 and the coveted Triple Crown in horse racing, a feat not accomplished in the past 30 years and only 11 times in history.

As a youngster growing up in Louisiana, Desormeaux was “just one of the kids,” according to his mother, Brenda Desormeaux.

“He participated in 4-H Short Course and 4-H Camp every summer,” she said. “He did real well in basketball and football at the younger ages. He wanted to be a basketball star, but he was too small. He prayed he would grow taller.”

But Desormeaux, who is 5-foot-3-inches, never grew tall. So he turned his attention to other activities, notably 4-H. For example, he earned a first place for demonstrating gun cleaning.

“I was his partner in that project,” said Blair Hebert, LSU AgCenter 4-H agent in Iberia Parish and Desormeaux’s first cousin. “But Kent was definitely the leader.”

Through 4-H, he got into horses and won the state show in 1985 in the halter class.

After beginning his horse racing career as a 16-year-old prodigy, he would go on to amass victory after victory on different thoroughbreds.

More than two decades later, Desormeaux is now hailed as one of the greatest horse jockeys in the world. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Museum of Racing (American thoroughbred horse racing) in 2004, and he still holds the record for most winning rides in a year (598 wins in 1989). He was also the youngest jockey ever to reach 3,000 victories at age 25.

Despite his successes, Desormeaux has faced his share of adversity. In 1980, two of Desormeaux’s uncles died in an airplane crash near his own backyard. 4-H club work provided a wholesome outlet for him to deal with the loss, and he incorporated information about their lives in an awarding-winning speech on patriotism in the 4-H public speaking contest.

In 1990, after settling in Southern California with his wife, Sonia, Desormeaux suffered a tragic setback. During a horse race, he was involved in a life-threatening spill, fracturing his skull and sustaining internal bleeding. Four days later his pregnant wife went into labor two months prematurely.

Kent was moved from his hospital to Sonia’s, where they shared a room. Next to her injured husband, Sonia gave birth to their first son, Jacob. Kent and Sonia’s second child, Joshua, was born in 1999 with Usher syndrome, a disorder causing deafness and vision problems.

With his horse racing career, Desormeaux had nearly a 10-year spell where he no longer experienced the success he had once achieved. People began asking him when he would retire.

In 2006, he moved his wife and two boys from Southern California to New York and almost immediately things began to read like the upswing moments in the movie “Rocky.”

“The big difference is I’m happy from within,” the reinvigorated jockey told a Los Angeles Times reporter.

“I just want to thank my family right now for moving East. I uprooted them, grabbed my kids from their friends, took them East and this is why,” Desormeaux stated in an NBC interview right after his 2008 Kentucky Derby victory.

The win with Big Brown was his third in the Kentucky Derby.

It was Desormeaux’s decision to do the unthinkable and pick gate 20 – the far outside position – to start the 2008 Kentucky Derby. The last time a horse and rider had won the Kentucky Derby from that gate was 1929. But, Desormeaux was able to avoid being bunched up at the beginning of the race, while methodically maneuvering Big Brown to a solid victory.

In the Preakness, Desormeaux quickly got Big Brown out of the gates, but held him back early, before calling upon his horse to open up out of the final turn and easily claim the race, characteristic of the Kentucky Derby victory. Once again, Desormeaux had made the right moves at the right time.

Desormeaux credits 4-H for helping develop his self-confidence, competitive spirit and common sense.

“4-H has given me the opportunity to educate myself with an alternative to books or a classroom,” he said.

In 1998, Desormeaux had a chance to score the Super Bowl victory of thoroughbred racing, the Triple Crown. Riding the horse Real Quiet, he won the Kentucky Derby and then the Preakness Stakes. But, on the cusp of winning the Belmont Stakes and Triple Crown glory, Victory Gallop edged Real Quiet by inches in the final stride of the race.

“I have for 21 plus years been a professional jockey. Those years include two (now three) of the most cherished wins for a jockey – the Kentucky Derby. 4-H has taught me through education, desire and responsibility that a person can and will achieve a goal,” Desormeaux said.

The man from Maurice who had prayed for greater height has won millions of dollars in a sport where it pays big to be small.

“With what’s gone on in my career over the past 10 years, I feel absolutely like the luckiest man alive. God certainly has blessed me with all of this fortune,” Desormeaux said.

Desormeaux is one of the people featured in a documentary about 100 years of 4-H in Louisiana, which has been airing on television stations across the state. The documentary was developed at the LSU AgCenter as part of the 2008 4-H centennial celebration.

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Writer: Randy LaBauve at 225-578-0794, or rlabauve@agcenter.lsu.edu

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