NEW YORK - As he stepped out into the crowded street, nobody paid any mind to the finely dressed little man peeking around a delivery truck in Times Square, just off the corner of 42d Street and Broadway, looking for the car picking him up.
That's where horse racing stands in the 21st century, over by the curb. But early Saturday evening, Kent Desormeaux will momentarily be at the center of the American sports world, dressed in his racing silks, sitting on a horse with a chance for horse racing's first Triple Crown in three decades.
"When we go under the wire . . . there can't be any more stars in the sky," Desormeaux said.
Big Brown doesn't know what will be on the line in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, but his jockey was here before, in almost the exact spot, when Real Quiet lost by a nose in 1998, in the closest Triple Crown miss in history.
"When I start getting a little gut-wrenched, I start dreaming of [Saturday's] race, putting myself in situations," Desormeaux said this week. "So, in real time, when it does happen, I'll have an instinctual response."
But with this one race threatening to stamp his reputation for all-time, is he feeling the pressure?
"No," said the 38-year-old native of Maurice, La., remembering his own start at bayou bush tracks. "Pressure is riding in a match race at Acadiana Downs where the bet is $10,000 and each guy's got $5,000 in one pocket and a pistol in the other."
That one didn't happen to him, but this one did: "One time I raced against a horse wearing a plastic blanket with electrical devices underneath it. That's the most insane thing I've ever seen."
His career quickly left the bush tracks far behind. At 25, riding in Maryland, Desormeaux became the youngest American rider to win 3,000 races, and still holds the world record with 598 wins in 1989. He has won the Kentucky Derby three times, on Real Quiet, Fusaichi Pegasus, and Big Brown. However, those big wins were sandwiched around some real lows. After moving to California and initially taking over the West Coast tracks, Desormeaux basically stopped winning.
"I thought I was the reason all the horses were winning," Desormeaux had said just before Big Brown won the Preakness. "I didn't realize that the people who owned these horses were giving me the chance to ride. The reason for my decline was my arrogance."
He added, "Also, the people I was riding for stopped winning."
The winding road led him here. He revived his career in Japan, then moved to New York.
"If I could move and prove my character in a country where I didn't even speak the same language, maybe I could show up in New York and re-create a whole new character," Desormeaux said. "I would be fresh, new and hungry."
He's winning again, on big horses, living 15 minutes from Belmont Park.
"I think that's the greatest advantage I have now compared to other situations I've been in - this is my backyard," Desormeaux said. "I know where every grain of sand at Belmont is. I know if there's a groove. I know if the rail is dead. I know I'm going to know all these things. It's not going to sneak up on me."
Big Brown and the other Belmont Stakes horses have never gone the required mile and a half, but Desormeaux believes he learned a valuable lesson on Real Quiet. He remembers asking the horse to make a move to get the lead.
"But asking him for that amount of speed so quickly was unnecessary," Desormeaux said. "I'll try to keep my horse in a nice, good, strong gallop and not ask him for that bolt of speed. All he needs to do is just stay smooth and just keep powering away."
If it happens, Desormeaux said, it will mean so much more, for an intensely personal reason. His 9-year-old son, Jacob, was born with a genetic disorder called Usher syndrome. Deaf at birth, Jacob has undergone 17 surgeries and now hears through cochlear implants, which generate signals that are sent to his brain and turned into sounds. However, his eyesight is slowly going away.
"He's probably going to be blind at adulthood," Desormeaux said. "He's got a very photographic memory. This is a situation where he's going to see so much joy, so many people overwhelmed with joy. If he does go blind, on a bad day he'll be able to remember things like this."
This week has been a whirlwind for Desormeaux. He talked about his son inside a Manhattan restaurant, then told the story about the plastic electric wires under the blanket as he walked out to the street. He did win that long-ago Cajun race, "on a horse called Stunk 'Em Up."
Out on the street, Desormeaux went looking for his ride, joining one of Big Brown's owners. A silver Mercedes pulled up, and they got in the back. Inside the restaurant, Desormeaux had admitted feeling tired from all this week's fanfare. The jockey also had said, "I wish I was in this situation every year."