When Kent Desormeaux gets a leg up June 11 aboard early Belmont Stakes (gr. I) favorite Exaggerator , he will bring with him a new focus on life and a determination to win that exceeds even the intense competition of the racetrack.
About a week and a half after his victory in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), Desormeaux entered a rehab facility in Utah, finally coming to terms with his alcoholism, which he has been battling for years. The jockey said he realizes the foe he finally has confronted will be tougher than any of his opponents in the Belmont.
For Desormeaux, one of the most successful jockeys of all time and a member of racing's Hall of Fame, horses have controlled his fate on the racetrack, but it was alcohol that began to creep into his life and soon controlled it off the racetrack. He said he was able to keep his riding isolated from his drinking, so he has existed in two worlds, each encompassing his life for the better and for the worse.
Only professional jockeys can comprehend the almost uncontrollable drive to get on the back of a high-strung Thoroughbred running at speeds of 35 miles per hour six, seven, or eight times a day, each time not knowing what fate awaits. In many cases it is the high-speed thrill they get and feeling that incomparable power of the Thoroughbred beneath them.
It is a 100-pound person trying to control an 1,100-pound animal running as fast and as hard as it can. But there is that constant insatiable hunger to compete that drives them, in spite of the risks.
It has been that thrill of competition and the pure joy of riding Thoroughbreds that keeps Desormeaux grounded once he enters the racetrack. Now he finally is attempting to keep the rest of his life grounded.
"I am now in full understanding of the depth of my problem and I am now going to address it professionally," Desormeaux said. "The reality was the fact that I thought it was time. I had family pressure, and my wife Rosie (Higgins) and longtime friend Michael Klein really thought that now was the perfect time.
"Things have come to fruition. They have slapped me in the face. I may have been in this rehab facility for only eight days, but I will have a correspondent for 20 more days who will follow me everywhere I go."
Klein, who is the son of the late Eugene Klein of Lady's Secret and Winning Colors fame, has been close friends with Desormeaux for 25 to 30 years and said the rider will have a professional companion whose job is to advise, consult, and support those in the position and condition Desormeaux is in.
"Kent rode for my father and he rode for me as an owner in 2002, 2003, and 2004," Klein said. "We had dinner together the Thursday before the Preakness and I called him after the race and suggested that he call a very fine doctor and interventionalist in Los Angeles, which he agreed to do, and I told him I would go with him.
"I said that I shared some of his issues, maybe not as deeply as his, and Kent made the call. The influence of his family, especially his wife Rosie, and I all played a role in him getting across the line."
When asked how Desormeaux's brother Keith, who trains Exaggerator, is balancing the racing and personal aspects of the situation, Klein said: "I can tell you that in my conversations with Keith, he is much more concerned and interested in Kent's well-being than Kent coming to New York to work the horse on Tuesday, which everyone has agreed he will do.
"There are many amazing functional athletes who are alcoholics. Kent may be the leader of that list for better or for worse. Despite his functionality in the past, his decision to be coming at this particular time is so important, because he'll be going into the Belmont with a great deal of confidence."
Desormeaux, who admitted he doesn't know exactly what an alcoholic is—he is unable to say when he first became one—said his alcoholism has never affected his riding, and he used his impressive statistics to bear that out.
"It would be very easy for me to say that my record speaks for itself," he said. "I probably have one of the best in-the-money percentages of any jockey and I am mandated to take a breathalyzer test every day. The fans who put their money on Kent Desormeaux can rest assured that I'm ready and good to go when I show up for work. I have been blessed with a God-given talent to understand the speed, rate, and ability of a racehorse and how to get him to the wire first. I can only thank God for those attributes."
Said Desormeaux's publicist, Kelly Wietsma: "Kent is one of the most talented jockeys and overall athletes in this or any industry. Despite the problem he's dealing with, he has always been the ultimate athlete on the playing field. The fact that he was able to take this initiative without urging from anyone tells you what kind of person he is.
"Even with him winning the Preakness and Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and finishing second in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), it is taking this step in his life that will make him a greater hero and a real winner."
Desormeaux, who had never been in rehab before and has attended only two Alcoholics Anonymous sequences of meetings, realizes it's going to be a long road and a long battle but said he is prepared for the challenge.
"Kevin McLaughlin, who is independent of the facility, is my sober companion and has 30 years of experience in this world (15 years of professional training and 15 years of sobriety)," Desormeaux said. "He will fly with me to New York; he will sleep in my room; he will follow me back to Los Angeles. The program will not stop when I finish the program (at Cirque Lodge in Sundance, Utah)."
Desormeaux said the support he has received from his family is important and essential to his well-being.
"My entire family has blown up my phone since I went into rehab," he said. "They are so proud of me for taking this step and they wish me well for the rest of my life and to continue in this endeavor of sobriety. I'm ready to do whatever it takes. I've already had counseling, and there's no longer going to be waking up in the morning and sitting down and watching TV with nothing to do.
"I used to be an avid golfer and I'm going to take up golf again. And if you look me up in two years, I promise you I will be an avid golfer once again. I will put my body in motion and stay busy."
Regardless of where he finishes in the Belmont, Desormeaux believes he has scored his greatest victory and is appreciative of all the support he has received over the years from trainers and owners who have continued to assign him choice mounts in major stakes.
"I would like to thank each and every owner and trainer who has given me the confidence in myself," he said. "Whatever questions they may have had in their mind, I can assure them there now will be no questions. I thank them all for the mounts and the opportunities they have given me. Now the sky's the limit."