If you're alive in 2016, you probably know someone. If you're in Thoroughbred racing in 2016, you know someone. Or at least that's the way it seems when it comes to alcoholism and its connection to racing, and everyday life.
I know a whole lot of people who are recovering alcoholics. Many are in racing. Some are quite close to me. I admire their courage, their ability to set aside that part of their lives, their skill at living one day at a time in sobriety and sanity. They didn't destroy their lives, though some tell me they almost did, and they pretty much all left at least some destruction behind them.
They wrecked cars, lost jobs, made bad decisions, hurt people and somehow came out the other side OK. They're better people. They may or may not have gone to rehab or counseling. They may or may not still attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. They may or may not have relapsed. They're not perfect, but they're here.
And for the most part, their battles were private. That's why I feel for Kent Desormeaux. The Hall of Fame jockey won the Preakness aboard Exaggerator May 21. Ten days later he was in an alcohol rehabilitation program in Utah, and everybody knew. Everybody. Racing fans, owners, trainers, other jockeys, his friends, his enemies. Pretty much anyone with access to newspapers, magazines, television, radio and the Internet read or saw something about it. Now he's in New York, with a sober companion/coach, about to ride Exaggerator in the Belmont Stakes. And everybody knows.
The news was news. Imagine Steph Curry going to rehab 10 days after winning the NBA championship.
Recovery is tough enough without the world watching you, no matter if the world is waiting for a slip-up or cheering you on.
To racing people, the news was - if not predictable - not all that surprising.
Desormeaux has battled alcohol problems and was fined $2,500 last year for being under the influence at Del Mar. He also failed alcohol breath tests in 2010 and in 2012. The three-time Eclipse Award winner somehow managed to come back from all of them. He no longer wins races at the clip he used to - including a 598-win season in 1989 - but he's a top jockey. His mounts earned more than $7 million last year and he entered June with more than $4 million earned this year. At 5,745 wins through June 8, he was 19th all-time.
And maybe that's part of the problem. Most recovering alcoholics I know talk about the role "rock bottom" played. That definition can vary and could mean homelessness, the end of a relationship, career failure, financial ruin, whatever. But at some point, rock bottom comes into play and helps people realize life isn't going to improve until the substance abuse ends.
Kent Desormeaux, even though he's not where he was in terms of his career, never hit rock bottom professionally. He drank, and won the Preakness. He drank, and won a Breeders' Cup race. He drank and won all kinds of races. He drank, and rode some of the best horses in the world.
Anyone can become an alcoholic, but jockeys are prime candidates. An ambulance follows them around at work. They most likely can't eat properly. People gamble on what they do for a living. The hours can be strange. If they're any good, they come into money at young ages. Then stir in a little fame and notoriety . . . some personal trauma . . . maybe an injury and time on the sidelines.
Ask a recovering addict how much harder quitting would have been if they never hit rock bottom. Then ask what it would have been like to quit in public. It's not impossible, people have done it, but it's not easy.
Maybe Desormeaux was doing the best he could do in the face of all that. He had it under control, or felt like he did. Until now, I guess.
Desormeaux won the Preakness on a horse trained by his brother. That's by no means rock bottom, but maybe the jockey took something else away from the achievement and its celebratory aftermath.
Since 1941, the Serenity Prayer has been part of AA. You don't have to be an alcoholic - or all that religious - to take something from it. First written by Reinhold Niebuhr, the simple version goes like this: God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I interviewed Desormeaux one-on-one in the Pimlico jocks' room shortly after the Preakness. He didn't look like an alcoholic or talk like one. He didn't even drink like one. Someone poured him about an inch of champagne in a paper cup. He sipped it the way someone who just achieved a career milestone would, then set it down. Then he went to take a shower.
I like to think he found some wisdom along the way.