06/16/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT
The high point of jockey Kent Desormeaux's already pretty terrific racing season? When his sons Jacob, 9, and Joshua, 15, joined him at this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner's circles. "It felt like Christmas to see my kids smiling from ear to ear, like they just received a present," he says. "I was overwhelmed with joy."
It was a poignant moment for Desormeaux, 38, who hopes to win racing's Triple Crown riding the horse Big Brown at the Belmont Stakes on June 7. Jacob, his youngest child, suffers from Usher syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes hearing and vision loss and affects about four in every 100,000 U.S. kids. The second grader at a mainstream school currently hears with the assistance of cochlear implants, which are noticeable on the sides of his head. He wears glasses and has difficulty with his night and peripheral vision. Like many 9-year-olds, he's addicted to Nintendo Wii (particularly the tennis game) and occasionally sulks when his dad insists he wear a helmet while riding his bike. He is expected to lose his vision by the time he is an adult. But for now, in the daylight—when the Belmont will be run—he takes mental notes on everything he sees. "He's very visual and he's in tune with so much," says his mom, Sonia, 39, Kent's wife and high school sweetheart.
The couple suspected something was wrong when, as a baby, Jacob would not stir during raucous house parties. The family clanged pots over his head; still no reaction. After a doctor confirmed Jacob's deafness at around 14 months, the family taught Jacob sign language and arranged for the implants. It took five procedures, the last around the child's third birthday, before they worked properly. "You could see in his face that he heard sound by facial expression," explains Kent. "It was awesome."
About three years ago, Jacob's sight began to fail. He would trip over objects on the ground and say he never saw them. Kent and Sonia initially assumed he needed glasses. But when his prescription required a change every few months, and when he would cry out to hold his dad's hand in the dark, protesting he could not see, they knew it was more serious. Jacob was diagnosed with Usher syndrome less than two years ago. Kent says the family grudgingly accepts that there is no cure for the condition. "He's the happiest kid on earth. We're just sad about what eventually is coming. It makes you hurt inside."
Which is one reason the family is happy to concentrate on the upcoming race. "Everybody knows my dad is going to win," says a proud Jacob. Brother Joshua echoes the sentiment: "People would know him everywhere, and he would be put in the record books." Calvin Borel, a fellow jockey and winner of last year's Kentucky Derby, thinks Desormeaux has a shot at the Triple Crown too: "He's a very good jockey, a very aggressive rider."
Desormeaux is preparing for the big day by sticking to his routine. He races five days a week at Belmont Park, near the family home in Garden City, N.Y. The 5'3" jockey does aerobics in a sauna to keep his weight at 114 lbs. And he sometimes visits Big Brown in his stable, patting the horse's forehead and fantasizing about the victory he's confident lies ahead. "I daydream about the race 24/7," Desormeaux says. Adds Michael Iavarone, Big Brown's majority owner: "I think that the horse and the rider get along very well."
A win would cap off a career that began at age 13 in tiny Maurice, La., in the heart of Cajun country. Kent quit school at 16 to jockey full-time, racking up wins but suffering injuries along the way—the most serious in 1992, when a horse trampled him, causing 16 fractures in his skull. Sonia was about eight months pregnant at the time, and the news sent her into premature labor. Kent recovered, aside from permanent hearing loss in his right ear, and in 1998 narrowly missed winning the Triple Crown after Real Quiet lost the Belmont by a nose. Yet the Hall of Fame jockey intends to redeem himself this year. "Because of Jacob's situation, I'm hoping he can be part of something immortal," says the jockey. "This is going to be an everlasting impression. No matter what, it's going to be there forever."