Kent Desormeaux, jockey for Exaggerator, opens up about becoming sober. (COREY SIPKIN/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)
When Kent Desormeaux gets a leg up aboard the early Belmont Stakes (gr. I) favorite, Exaggerator, on June 11, he will bring with him a new focus on life and a determination to win that exceeds even the intense competition of the racetrack.
Since his victory in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), Desormeaux has been to a rehab facility in Utah, finally coming to terms with his alcoholism, which he has been battling for years. He realizes that 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. Fortunately, he was able to keep his riding isolated from his drinking. He has existed in two worlds, each encompassing his life for the better and for the worse.
Unless you are a professional jockey, there is no way to comprehend the almost uncontrollable drive one has to have to get on the back of a high-strung Thoroughbred running at speeds of 35 miles per hour six, seven, eight times a day, each time not knowing what fate awaits you.
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 he 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 long time pressure from my wife Rosie and long time friend Michael Klein and I really thought that now was the perfect time.
“Things have come to fruition. They have slapped me in the face. My stay in rehab and moving forward taking the necessary steps will be the difference from the past, also I will have a companion who will be with me where ever 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 some 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 currently is in.
“Kent rode for my father and he rode for me as an owner in 2002, ’03, and ’04,” 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, and Kent made the call. The influence of his family, especially his wife Rosie, and we 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 replied, “I can tell you that in my conversations with Keith, he is much more concerned and interested in his brother'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, so he is unable to say when he first became one, assures that his alcoholism has never affected his riding, and uses his impressive career 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 assure 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.”
Desormeaux’s publicist, Kelly Wietsma, added, “Kent is one of the most talented jockeys and overall athletes in this or any industry. Despite the problem he’s dealing with, he’s always been the ultimate athlete on the playing field. 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.”
Desormeaux, who has never been in rehab before and has attended only two AA sequences of meetings, realizes this is going to be a long road and a long battle, and he is prepared for the challenge.
“My Sober Companion, who is independent of the facility, has 30 years of experience in this world (15 years of professional training and 30years 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 leave the facility.
What is important now and essential to his well being is the support Desormeaux has received from his family.
“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. I will put my body in motion and stay busy.”
Regardless of where he finishes in the Belmont Stakes, Desormeaux has scored his greatest victory and is appreciative of all the support he’s 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.