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Quietly, Desormeaux seizes an opportunity

Published Sep. 13, 2005

Real Quiet lived up to his name, flying stealthily down the Churchill Downs backstretch. Fast, dangerousand all but undetected amid Saturday's uproar of 143,215 at the Kentucky Derby.

Most eyes were on 5-2 favorite Indian Charlie, a far-more-celebrated thoroughbred in trainer Bob Baffert's stable.

Some bettors searched for Cape Town, a renowned late runner. Wasn't it time for Favorite Trick to move?

Where was Halory Hunter?

Old Trieste was leading but going into a death fade. Indian Charlie bolted past. But, on his hindquarters, there came Real Quiet. Becoming a loud, visible attacker. "Oh, baby!" jockey Kent Desormeaux bellowed.

Indian Charlie's jets couldn't match Real Quiet. Too much stealth. At the top of Churchill's long, excruciating stretch, Desormeaux was envisioning the ultimate. He recalled screaming, "Oh, maybe!"

More exclamations to come.

"Oh, s---!" the jockey was soon yelling. Deep into the Derby's climactic chapter. One last pursuer. "Victory Gallop, not Cape Town, became the late bloomer," Desormeaux said. "Coming hard. But nobody was catching me and Real Quiet."

Kent and his stealth hit the wire. A multitude was cheering. Over the final 300 yards, Desormeaux smacked Real Quiet many times with a left-handed whip, followed by a few love taps from the right side. Finally, in triumph, his whip was held skyward.

Six years ago, Desormeaux was thrown by a Santa Anita mount. Kicked in the head. He lost hearing in his right ear. But the Saturday tumult was fully embraced. The man from Louisiana standing tall in his saddle. Putting fingers to lips, blowing a kiss to the heavens.

"This one's for you, Grandma," he mouthed. "I know you're watching." Hours before Desormeaux made his first Derby ride in 1988, his grandmother died. "My mom had to go home to Louisiana; missing the race that we'd all dreamed about for years." He finished 16th on Purdue King.

"My first 80 yards, after crossing the finish line with Real Quiet, it was like being in shock," he said. "But then it became very real. I cried a little. It was about my mother, father, grandmother and all the other people who had helped get me to this Derby moment."

The first time Desormeaux, a Cajun child, ever broke from a starting gate, he was barely 6 and riding a Shetland pony. "My family was anything but well off," he said, "but my dad worked many jobs to keep us fed. He always managed to have a racehorse in our back yard, so I could learn to ride."

At age 12, Desormeaux became a professional jock on dusty quarterhorse tracks in Louisiana. From there, he advanced to the second-rate thoroughbreds of Evangeline Downs in nearby Lafayette. Then on to the big-time in Maryland and New Jersey and finally California.

By age 23, the old Shetland jock had earned millions. He won 3,000 races before turning 26 _ faster than Arcaro, Shoemaker, Hartack or any rider.

After his 1992 mishap, Desormeaux's career began to flatten out. While his income remained strong, the quality of his accomplishments diminished. Two years ago, he hooked up with Baffert.

"Kent had an attitude problem," Baffert said. "I sat him down and pushed hard. He was riding horses for too many people. We hacked it out. He promised to do it my way. I gave him good horses to ride. What happened in this 124th Derby is the reward for a lot of dedication."

Like most riders, Desormeaux is superstitious. His deal has always been to get a fresh haircut the morning of a major race. Saturday, he could locate no open barber shops. Sonia Desormeaux hunted for scissors. None could be found in their hotel. There was no clipping.

"This proves a point that I've always suspected," Sonia said. "If you put a good enough horse under a jockey, there's no need to worry about superstitions."

Baffert has the hottest 1-2-3 start of any Kentucky Derby trainer ever. After losing by a head with Cavonnier in 1996, he won last year with Silver Charm. Now comes Real Quiet. Baffert clearly expected to win Saturday. But not with Desormeaux's colt.

"I thought Indian Charlie was just plain better," Baffert said. "But that's why we run the races. Real Quiet had more juice."

Real Quiet is owned by one of Baffert's closest pals, Mike Pegram of Mount Vernon, Wash. A native of Princeton, Ind., he has made a fortune as owner of more than 20 McDonald's restaurants near Seattle.

"We've been partying together for a long time," Pegram said. "But when you think of the odds against what happened in this Derby, it's downright amazing."

Top yearlings often sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Baffert paid $17,000 on Pegram's behalf to buy Real Quiet. "When told of the amount," the trainer said, "Mike immediately asked, "What's he got, cancer?' This is one of the great modern bargains in horse racing."

Desormeaux was the most enchanting story. Coming back from an injury and a slump. Winning a Derby for grandma and his parents. Despite missing his lucky haircut.

Why can't there be more genuine reactions like this? Why must a majority of 1990s athletes, upon winning a marvelous prize, be more dedicated to being cool than warm? Why can't they openly share with the world, not just with peers?

Real Quiet was a really loud joy.