“Happy birthday to you…happy birthday to you…”
Thus began the Saturday evening press conference with the connections of Belmont winner Summer Bird, as jockey Kent Desormeaux entered, serenading trainer Tim Ice.
Desormeaux’s high spirits were understandable: after five unsuccessful attempts at a Belmont win, including two aboard Triple Crown contenders, he had finally broken through to win the Test of the Champions, guiding Summer Bird to a nearly three length victory.
Desormeaux’s résumé is impressive: three Eclipse awards; thrice leading jockey; winner of the George Woolf Memorial Award for jockeys whose careers and personal character earn esteem for the individual and the sport of Thoroughbred racing; three wins in the Derby and two in the Preakness.
Such accomplishments might place Desormeaux firmly at the top of the racing world, impervious to criticism about his judgment and riding expertise. A glance through online racing boards and a little eavesdropping at the race track, however, will likely yield as much criticism as praise of Desormeaux as a jockey.
He is affable, charming, personable; pre-race, he chats politely and pleasantly, and he seldom wears that “Don’t talk to me” game face as he walks to the paddock. He is accused of not taking his mounts seriously enough, of not riding to the wire, and he continues to be pilloried for his ride aboard Big Brown in last year’s Belmont and for his decision to pull him up.
It is thus entirely possible that the happiest person on the grounds of Belmont Park on Saturday night was Kent Desormeaux. His Louisiana charm was on prominent display throughout the press conference, as was his frankness about both his own feelings following the win and Calvin Borel’s comments through the week. “Last year’s Belmont was like swallowing a spoon sideways,” he said. “[Big Brown] had some adversity and lack of training. I still didn’t think he could lose. Things happened the way they did, he didn’t respond. I babysat him…Being in the Hall of Fame without the Belmont would have been a scratch in my cloth.”
When asked whether three earlier wins on the card had given him any confidence, Desormeaux reacted with humility and humor:
Yeah, I was flying high as a kite until I rode Wesley [in the Manhattan,
finishing eighth] and the bottom fell out. I was really hopeful that I
thought I had a big chance in that race and I really would like to have a
In response to a question about his tactics in the Belmont, Desormeaux showed his awareness of the threat of Mine That Bird and fellow Cajun jockey Borel. “Well, I actually was thinking if Borel is going to beat me, he’s going to have to come around. It’s a Louisiana life-long lesson.” Earlier in the week, he’d called Borel “naïve” for underestimating the challenges of the Belmont; Saturday afternoon, he spoke of the importance of preparing specifically for this race.
[Trainer Tim Ice] had this horse here early. It is very, very different
lay of the land here at Belmont. We don’t call it the Big Sandy for
nothing. The track is different.
As for guarantees: “I’ve given them out before and had some success. You learn in the end you usually just shoot yourself in the foot.” He added, “I guarantee you [Borel] went into the race with that utmost feeling he could not lose, and I wouldn’t want anybody any different on my horse.”
Before heading off to celebrate on Saturday evening, Desormeaux stopped by Summer Bird’s barn. He graciously accepted congratulations and hugs from the small group of connections and fans gathered there, and then he walked to the horse’s stall as the others chatted. He spoke to the horse quietly, he stroked his head and neck; a few moments of observation yielded the impression of genuine affection, maybe even gratitude for what they had together accomplished a few hours earlier.
I’ve not been among Desormeaux’s detractors, and I defended him vigorously last June. This year’s Belmont did not have the story that so many wanted—the Calvin Crown, the victory by the little gelding—but in its place, we have the Birthday Belmont for first-year trainer Tim Rice, and what some might call redemption for Desormeaux. I’ll take it.