In the Kentucky derby, the Black Jockey is looking for a bit of history


Kendrick Carmouche’s education began when he was a little boy sitting next to his father as they rode in the pre-dawn fog southwest of Louisiana. They talked about balance, pace and soft hands. They talked to the horses.

Sylvester Carmouche was a jockey. Good.

He has won nearly 700 races on major tracks like the New Orleans Fairgrounds and the Louisiana Downs near Shreveport. As Kendrick grew up, Carmouches were vagabonds, traveling to bushy trails cut off from sugar cane fields and opposite honky-tonks with names like The Quarter Pole and Cajun Downs.

Sylvester Carmouche lost his license to drive on sanctioned racetracks after pulling a cheeky, reckless trick during a fog-wrapped race. But Kendrick Carmouche – who will try to become the first Black Jockey in 119 years to win the Kentucky Derby on Saturday – never thought of his father as a “Mist Jockey,” as many others did. He thought of it as a doctorate. in horse races and as the “Pops” who led him everywhere and taught him everything.

He still knows. And he says that before he climbs the foal called Bourbonic for Derby, he will hug his father and thank him for making him the jockey and man he is today.

“Look, I’m 37 and I’ve covered a lot of sidewalks, put in a lot of effort and stayed positive in tough times,” Kendrick Carmouche said. “I learned all that from my dads.”

Carmouche’s presence at the starting door will be followed by history. He knows that black jockey Oliver Lewis won the first derby in 1875 and that 15 of the first 28 editions of the race were won by black jockeys, the last Jimmy Winkfield in 1902.

He is also intensely aware of the nation’s constant dialogue about race.

Last June, when the races returned to New York, Carmouche helped organize a a moment of silence in Belmont Park for those lost to the pandemic. Then he and more than a dozen fellow jockeys grabbed his knee in solidarity with those protesting the killing of George Floyd.

But regardless of the potential significance of his ride in the Derby, Carmouche said he would mostly think of his father. “He infused me with a lot of lessons and love,” he said.

Lesson 1 was that shortcuts have consequences. Sylvester Carmouche drove bushes during most of his son’s adolescence as he tried to redirect her to racing officials and bookmakers.

On January 11, 1990, a thick fog settled on the Delta Downs in Vinton, La., And Sylvester Carmouche could barely see the nose of his horse, let alone those competing with him. In the 11th race, Sylvester, a member of the landing officer, seemed to have won easily.

Maybe too easy.

The landing officer, a 23-by-1 shot, won by nearly 25 lengths and nearly equaled the track record in the mile race. After the trail the vet noticed that neither the horse nor the jockey seemed windy or dirty.

Sylvester Carmouche is accused of throwing the disembarkation officer out of the race near the start, hiding in the fog until the other horses rounded the track, and then returning to the race, in front of the pack, near the last turn. The Louisiana Racing Commission found him guilty and suspended him for 10 years.

“I did it. I made a mistake. I did my thing,” said Sylvester Carmouche, 62. “The only good thing that came out of it was the time I had to spend with Kendrick and my family.”

Sylvester drove Kendrick to school on tracks in Louisiana cities like Carencro and Abbeville, where amid betting and coups and zydeco music, often powered by Budweiser and boudin sausages, the boys learned how to ride racehorses for more than a century. These illicit bush paths are part of the Cajun culture as much as Sunday Mass and crabs are worth.

Eddie Delahoussaye, Kent Desormeaux and Calvin Borel – Hall of Fame and Kentucky derby winners – are among the multitude of Cajun jockeys who have developed their craft as 11- or 12-year-olds tied to the saddle in race matches for stakes up to $ 10,000.

In his youth, as well as in exile, Sylvester Carmouche won racetracks in small towns.

When Kendrick turned 13, his father was convinced he had soaked up his tutorials and practice classes on family Shetland ponies. So he rushed his son to the thoroughbred and took him to the starting door in the Acadiana Downs for his first taste of racing.

“He did well – he finished second in the four-horse race,” Sylvester Carmouche said. “He came back with a smile that hadn’t left him yet.”

When Kendrick turned 16, he got a jockey license and started riding professionally in Delta Downs. He knew at least one person in the jockey’s room — his father. Sylvester Carmouche’s license was returned two years earlier, in 1998.

How proud he was of his son, Sylvester had another lesson for him: “I told him to go east. Louisiana was good to me too, but there was a big world out there that he could see and live in. “

So five days before turning 17, Kendrick Carmouche moved his connection to the Philadelphia area to occupy the Mid-Atlantic Circle. He met the woman he was going to marry, started a family and became a money driver at Parx Racing.

Back in Louisiana, Sylvester Carmouche attracted attention for a brighter reason, as the lead pilot of Hallowed Dreams, a mare that won 25 of its 30 starts, including 16 in a row. He retired in 2013 at age 55 with 1,348 wins on sanctioned tracks and more than $ 11 million in purses. He is still galloping a few horses near his home in Arnaudville, La.

In 2015, after winning five titles in riding at Parx, Kendrick Carmouche decided he was ready for New York, the U.S. premier racing circuit. He introduced himself to the trainers by working his horses – up to ten a day – in the morning and making the most of his racing opportunities in the afternoon.

Carmouche operates in New York. On Wednesday, he says goodbye to his wife Whitney, daughter Olivia (15) and son Kendrick (12) and leaves his home in Newark, Del. A two and a half hour drive to a hotel near the trail. He returns home on the Sunday after the last race.

This focus has helped Carmouche climb the jockey ladder each year, earning more holders and more money. He won the rider title at Aqueduct last fall, his first in New York, and is currently 7th in the state in terms of earnings.

No one else from the New York Racing Association jockey colony looks like him. Nor did any driver in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware or anywhere else he rode. Black jockeys were kicked out of the sport in the Jim Crow era and are now a rare occurrence in competition.

Carmouche said the race never kept him in the sport and highlighted his more than 3,400 career victories and more than $ 118 million in purse earnings as proof.

“I try to. I am dear to everyone, “he said. “If you treat me the same, I don’t care if you’re pink or green. I learned that from Pops as well. “

Now Carmouche has his first carrier for the Kentucky derby, which is, perhaps appropriately, a long stroke for laying a wreath of roses.

Earlier this month, Bourbonic started at 72 to 1 at the Wood Memorial on Aqueduct and pulled eight other horses per mile. In that move, however, Carmouche smoothed his foal, rubbed his neck and scored every bit of speed to win by the nose.

“All I ever wanted was an opportunity,” Carmouche said. “I earned it everywhere I drove. Now I have a chance to bring those roses home. I wouldn’t count. ”

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