The Breeders' Cup Forum: Deshawn Parker - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

The Breeders’ Cup Forum: Deshawn Parker

Jockey Deshawn Parker

Deshawn Parker has only occasionally stepped outside of his comfort zone, Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, where he has compiled numerous riding titles and logged the vast majority of his 4,456 career wins. But, for the first time, the 43-year-old Parker, with the help of longtime agent Billy Johnson, will start taking mounts at Sam Houston Race Park in Texas, beginning with next Friday's opening night program.

Parker is a rarity, an African-American jockey in a sport long ago dominated by black riders but seldom seen today. Parker is the winningest African-American rider ever.

He is also one of the tallest jockeys you'll ever see – 5 foot, 11 inches.

Parker is one of horse racing's all-time leaders, ranking 41st by career wins and 18th among active jockeys. He was North America's leading rider by wins in 2010 and '11 and has been in the top 10 for each of the last six years. In 2012, he was honored by the Jockeys' Guild with its Laffit Pincay Jr. Award and has twice been a finalist for the George Woolf Award.

But much like racing's winningest rider, Russell Baze, Parker has toiled in a small market and in relative anonymity. Like Baze, Parker enjoys going home to his family every night, not having to move from track to track throughout the year. He and wife Maria live 15 minutes away from Mountaineer in East Liverpool, Ohio, where they've raised their two sons, while he became that track's all-time winningest rider.

He's been with agent Billy Johnson for 14 years and it's a partnership of mutual respect. “Deshawn is a very good judge of pace and an excellent finisher on a horse,” Johnson said. “As impossible as it seems, I've yet to find a trainer who has complained about riding him. On and off the track, he's a true professional. He sells himself.”

What led to your decision to go to Sam Houston Race Park?
This summer we were riding for Eric Reed at Mountaineer and Presque Isle. He put something in Billy's head and asked if we would be interested in coming to Sam Houston and ride for him. I wouldn't mind getting out of the cold weather – it's tougher as I get older – and make more opportunities to put our name out there and ride for different trainers.

Have you made any commitments beyond this upcoming meeting, which ends in March?
We haven't decided what we're going to do after this. We'll see how this meeting goes, take it from there and see where we might end up. My wife and two boys are staying at home because of school. The oldest is 18 and youngest is 12.

Do either have any interest in horse racing?
They're definitely into it. My oldest son is bigger and put on a lot of weight. He's hoping to play soccer in college. My youngest son has a frame like mine and might think about riding some day, but I haven't pushed it.

How did you decide on Mountaineer?
I took out my apprentice license in 1988 and was riding at Thistledown (near Cleveland). My dad was a steward (Darryl Parker, the first African-American hired in the U.S. to be a steward in 1986), and every time I rode he took himself out of the stand because he didn't want to judge a race I was in. So I had to leave and find another track. I've been 17 years at Mountaineer. When we first started there it was year-round racing. It was the ideal place to be home, not to travel around, so I could be with my family.

I take it your dad was a big influence on you.
He was definitely a coach, and he was tough on me. He made sure I'd switch sticks, go left-handed that kind of thing.

Deshawn Parker & the Mountaineer jockey colony celebrate his 4,000-win milestone
Deshawn Parker & the Mountaineer jockey colony celebrate his 4,000-win milestone

Is there any particular rider you modeled yourself after?
As a kid, I always idolized and was good friends with Heriberto Rivera Jr. When I was growing up, he would take me to the movies, hang out. He and my dad were good friends. I tried to ride races like him. He's a Jockeys' Guild rep now and I still talk to him every day.

At 5' 11”, has it been tough keeping your weight down?
I've always been a real skinny kid. Never had that much problem with weight. The challenge was getting trainers to put me on horses, especially when I'd walk up to them and I'm taller than they are. But when they see how low I can get on a horse, it's not been a problem.

How meaningful is it to be the winningest African-American jockey in the sport?
It means a lot, especially knowing the history of the black jockeys, knowing they were Kentucky Derby winners, and they don't get that much publicity. To be able to say I've won more races than these great riders, it's definitely a big accomplishment.

Why so few black jockeys today?
A lot of our kids aren't around the racetracks like they used to be. Tracks don't let the kids on the backside, and that hurts. In all honesty, the Spanish riders are the majority and black and white are the minority. They're coming from their countries, going to jockey schools there, and when they come here they are good riders. Starting here you have to be 16 before you're allowed on the backside.

What goals have you set for yourself?
Just to keep winning races, wherever I end up. I'm not saying I don't want to ride in the Kentucky Derby or win that or other big races. I just want to keep winning races, enjoying what I do. I definitely want to get to 5,000 wins.

Do you have any regrets about staying all these years in a small market track?
I can't say I have regrets. I succeeded a lot more than I ever expected to. When I started riding, as tall as I was, I didn't expect to last long. I wouldn't change anything. I am really enjoying what I'm doing right now.

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