Desormeaux returns to state where he burst onto scene

Don Markus
The Baltimore Sun

The memories are clear, unvarnished over more than three decades and thousands of victories.

Each time Kent Desormeaux returns to Maryland, as he will this week for the 141st Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, there’s a good chance someone will remind him about something he did in his early years as a teenage phenom tearing up the sport.

Desormeaux was to horse racing in the late 1980s what Tiger Woods became to golf. He was a 16-year-old apprentice in December of 1986 when he won his first stakes race, the Maryland City Handicap at Laurel, on a horse named Godbey.

“I had been winning several races on the undercard, not getting an opportunity in a stakes (race) because I was an apprentice — a bug boy — but the chatter after that race was, ‘Did you see that ride?’ ” Desormeaux, 46, recalled. “That was the beginning of the next level of racing for me.”

His first stakes victory was merely a prelude to what Desormeaux did the next three years, when he won more races than any rider in the country, including 598 in 1989 — a record that still stands. He was named the Eclipse Award winner as Apprentice Jockey of the Year and earned a second Eclipse Award in 1989.

Dale Capuano, who first started giving Desormeaux work at Laurel as a “10-pound bug,” said “even when he was young, he could ride any type of horse. Front runner, closer, stalker, it didn’t matter.”

Early on, Desormeaux rode for Capuano, Charlie Hadry and Marvin Moncrief, who gave him his first stakes ride on Godbey. Longtime Maryland-based trainer Mike Trombetta said he occasionally got his chance to use the sport’s rising star, and would have liked to use him more.

“It was to your benefit to get him on your horse because it would put you in a stronger position and even more so, you didn’t want him riding against you if you had a live horse,” Trombetta said.

Desormeaux admits he didn’t quite grasp the significance of his early accomplishments. In 1989, when he broke the record for wins, it was all a blur.

“I remember nothing but planes, trains and automobiles,” he said. “I was riding from 1 to 6 (p.m. in Maryland), and then either jumping on a plane or getting in a car and going to the next track.”

After considering riding in New York, Desormeaux went to California. Still, Maryland holds a special place — and pull — for Desormeaux. He knows the roads, knows the track and feels calm racing there.

Asked the biggest difference between being a 46-year-old jockey coming back to ride in the Preakness for the 14th time — it will be his 42nd Triple Crown race — Desormeaux said it’s his nerves.

“I’d be shaking in my shoes to ride in the Preakness,” said Desormeaux, who finished dead last in his first Preakness, in 1988. “Now, not only have I won it twice (in 1998 on Real Quiet and in 2008 on Big Brown), I’ve lived life. I’ll be as cool as a cucumber in the saddle (with Exaggerator on Saturday).”

That Desormeaux has endured a long and well-publicized battle with alcoholism — reportedly flunking four breathalyzer tests, including one as recently as last May and one that cost him a ride in the 2012 Preakness — makes his longevity in the sport even more remarkable.

Gun Runner drops out

Gun Runner, third-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby, will skip the Preakness, leaving a likely field of 11.

Trainer Steve Asmussen said Gun Runner, the Louisiana Derby winner, would remain at Churchill Downs.

Preakness Stakes

Post time: 6:14 p.m. (approx.) Saturday

Where: Pimlico Race Course, Baltimore

TV: NBCSN — Friday, 3-5 p.m. (Black-Eyed Susan Stakes), Saturday, 2:30-5 p.m. (Preakness undercard); NBC — Saturday, 5-7:15 p.m. (race)

Post position draw: 5 p.m. today

Purse: $1.5 million

Distance: 1 3/16 miles

2015 winner: American Pharoah

Expected field: Nyquist (Kentucky Derby winner), Exaggerator (Derby runner-up), Cherry Wine, Laoban, Collected, Fellowship, Uncle Lino, Awesome Speed, Lani, Stradivari, Dazzling Gem.