Kent Desormeaux and Big Brown (Jason Szenes/European Pressphoto Agency)
Joe Drape of The New York Times reports that the first time Kent Desormeaux came to this venerable old racetrack, he was a kid from the bayou, barely removed from Louisiana bush track match races where boys like him, as part of their early lessons, rode against horses strapped with bags of rocks, or a rooster, and sometimes a monkey. He was the Cajun Kid, who won nine riding titles in Maryland and still holds a single-season record for victories here — 599 of them in 1989.
Now Desormeaux, 38, is a Hall of Fame jockey, a hard-knocks one. He moved his wife and childhood sweetheart, Sonia; and his two boys, Joshua, now 15, and Jacob, 9; to New York from California two years ago. Desormeaux had gone sour out West and needed to be reminded what it felt like to be on a good horse.
As the sun dimmed here Saturday, and he was peeking under one shoulder and then the other, looking for somebody — anybody — to come and get him, Desormeaux knew that he was on a great horse, not a good one. Big Brown had floated him around the track; they had maybe an eighth of a mile to go and, lord, if Desormeaux did not feel his colt had sprouted wings.
“I looked between my legs, under my arms, and they were eight back,” he said. “I just stopped riding and reeled him in and made sure he didn’t pull himself up.”
The chart is going to say Big Brown soared to a five-and-a-quarter-length victory in the 133rd running of the Preakness Stakes. Anyone who watched the big bay colt with a celestial stride here or on television knows he could have won by 12 lengths. The performance will not make folks forget about the injury the filly Eight Belles sustained moments after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby and led to her euthanization on the racetrack.
After a tragedy-free afternoon, however, the sport of horse racing will welcome the talk of Big Brown perhaps becoming the 12th Triple Crown champion, and the first since Affirmed in 1978, over the next three weeks.
“This is the best horse I’ve ever ridden — I’ve said it,” said Desormeaux, an ebullient man who has won the Kentucky Derby three times and, in 1998, pulled into Belmont as the pilot of Real Quiet with a chance to capture the Triple Crown. “The important thing is we get to move into the next town and he’s going back to the barn with only using a half a tank.”
Horse enthusiasts have plenty to be excited about as Big Brown joins Majestic Prince (1969), Seattle Slew (1977) and Smarty Jones (2004) as the only colts who headed to the Belmont Stakes undefeated and trying for the Triple Crown. Only Seattle Slew managed to cement that piece of sports immortality.
For Desormeaux, however, nosing Big Brown into the starting gate at that grand old racetrack on Long Island three weeks from now, for the mile-and-a-half Test of the Champion, will not be about how he has successfully revived a career or how he potentially may find a measure of redemption.
In 1998, many believe Desormeaux got Real Quiet beat in the Belmont Stakes. Desormeaux moved his colt early on the turn and kicked off to a four-length lead only to be caught at the wire by Victory Gallop. It took an interminable photo finish to figure out that Desormeaux and Real Quiet lost by a nostril.
Instead, Big Brown’s victory today will be one for Sonia, Joshua and especially his youngest son, Jacob, to savor. Jacob was born with Usher Syndrome, a degenerative disease that affects his hearing and will eventually take his eyesight.
With the help of a cochlear implant, Jacob certainly heard the crowd of 112,222 crackle as Big Brown galloped this overmatched field of 11 rivals into submission over 1 3/16 miles.
What he saw was truly remarkable as Big Brown tracked from third place behind Gayego and Riley Tucker through three quarters of a mile in a rapid 1 minute 10.48 seconds, and then inhaled them.
Then as horse and rider hit the far turn, it was over, and they crossed the wire in 1:54.80. As Desormeaux put it, “I said, ‘bye, bye,’ ” before deciding that was not even enough of a description. “Whoooooooooo!”
Neither his fellow jockeys nor trainers cared to argue with that description. Not Julien Leparoux, who rode Macho Again to second place. “We just got beat by a monster,” he said. “He might just be a Triple Crown winner. This is the best second place I’ve ever had.”
Not Graham Motion, the trainer of the third-place finisher, Icabad Crane.
“Big Brown’s a very, very good horse,” he said. “He’s the real deal. It’s exciting for the game.”
Big Brown, a son of Boundary out of the mare Mien, is indeed a new star for a game that desperately needs one. He was the champion of $2 bettors who made him the odds-on favorite and raked in a $2.40 return. The colt brought home the $600,000 first-place check for his owners, International Equine Acquisitions and Holdings and Paul Pompa Jr.
It pretty much looked like small change after they announced in the postrace celebration that they had sold Big Brown’s stallion rights to Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky. They did not disclose the price, but a person with knowledge of the deal said it topped $50 million.
Sad perhaps for horse racing fans is that Big Brown will not race as a 4-year-old and perhaps will not step on a racetrack again after the Belmont.
None of this dampened the enthusiasm of Desormeaux. The Cajun Kid is now a New York man. When he uprooted his family to revive his career, it meant making sure Jacob had specialists and educators ready to help him negotiate a difficult future.
On Saturday, Jacob rooted his father home and fell into the arms of his mother and brother as soon as Big Brown crossed the finish line. He has now seen his father and Big Brown win the Derby and the Preakness. No matter what happens in three weeks in New York, that is enough for Desormeaux. He does not know how long Jacob will have his sight.
“I know he saw this one,” he said, “that’s all I know.”