Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux has won 6,049 races in North America, including the Kentucky Derby and Preakness three times each, the Belmont Stakes and six Breeders’ Cup events.
So what is he doing these days riding cheap claimers at Golden Gate Fields in Albany, Calif.?
“We got great offers from the leading outfits here and the offers down south weren’t doing the job,” Desormeaux said. “It’s depressing to have over 6,000 winners and three Derbies and you’re sitting on the pine bench in the jocks’ room.”
For a man who holds the all-time record of 597 winners in one year (1989), riding just 36 in 2019 didn’t cut it. He left Southern California for his native Louisiana in November but had just three winners from 59 mounts. So on the advice of his agent, J.R. Pegram, he came to Golden Gate Fields in late January.
“This is the fourth time we’ve been together over the past 10 years,” Pegram said. “We split about a year and a half ago in Southern California, but he called me wanting to know where he could win races. I recommended Golden Gate not thinking he would actually come.”
Leading Golden Gate Fields trainer Jonathan Wong said he was shocked to learn that Desormeaux was arriving.
“I thought it was too good to be true,” Wong said. “Outside of the top four riders here, the drop-off is significant, and a good rider is always a plus. This is a track that is on the upswing, one of the only ones in the country, so I can’t say I blame him.”
There’s a method to Desormeaux’s desire to ride more winners: He wants to become the all-time winningest jockey from Louisiana. Eddie Delahoussaye retired in 2002 with 6,384 winners.
So far at Golden Gate Fields, Desormeaux has 18 winners, 18 seconds and 20 thirds from 100 mounts. His win percentage of 18.0 is third behind Juan Hernandez (32.5%) and Ricardo Gonzalez (20.5%), and his top-three percentage of 55.2 is second to Hernandez’s 66.0%.
“I don’t mind riding cheap claimers at all,” said Desormeaux, who turned 50 on Feb. 27. “If you’re 5-2, 7-2, 9-2 (in the odds), you can’t wait to ride them. You don’t like to ride 20-1 shots unless you know something.”
Of course, Desormeaux rides more than cheap claimers; he finished second with American Farmer in the $102,700 El Camino Real Derby, and he has won allowance, maiden special-weight and upper level claiming events.
“I had butterflies when I first came because you’ve got to let people see you’re trying,” Desormeaux said. “I was just hoping I could get horses that could get to the wire first and make a difference.”
Assuming Golden Gate Fields remains open in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Desormeaux plans to ride there the rest of the season, which ends June 14. Then he’ll ride at Del Mar and return to Golden Gate Fields after Labor Day.
Larry Stumes is a freelance writer who has covered horse racing in the San Francisco area since 1976.
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