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Black jockey at Tampa Bay Downs is a modern rarity


The game was called "Rescue."

After sitting under the horse track rails playing in the dirt and watching his father exercise horses, DeShawn Parker, 4 or 5 years old at the time, would stand beside a towering horse. His father, Daryl, would yell, "Rescue!" then lean over, scoop up the young boy and plop him onto the horse.

DeShawn Parker went from jumping into his father's arms at the Latonia, Ky., track to mounting horses, exercising them and finally compiling the most wins for an African-American jockey in the history of horse racing.

Last year, Parker, 40, led all North American jockeys with 377 victories. He said he earned more than $500,000. In 2008, he was second with 333 wins.

His father didn't expect his son to make horse-racing history.

"I always took DeShawn to the race track with me," Daryl Parker, 59, said from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio. "That was his treat. If he was good, he could go hang out with me at the track. He's accomplished a lot more than I ever imagined. I thought he might make a nice living exercising horses and go on to play baseball. But his love for riding took over and he could not wait to get back to horses."

Daryl Parker has his own page in horse racing's history. In 1986, he was named the sport's first African-American steward. Stewards enforce the rules at racetracks and review alleged violations. When he became a steward, he made an agreement with his son, who was 16 at the time: Promise to graduate from high school and you can try your hand at being a jockey.

• • •

While DeShawn Parker usually rides in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, he is riding at Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar this season. It's a bit of a risk for him. Before this season he had ridden at the track only one time, when he was flown in to ride one horse for one race. Now, he has to find new horse owners and trainers who will trust him to ride their money-makers.

In addition, Parker had to leave his East Liverpool, Ohio, home. His wife, Maria, is there with their teenage boys, DeShawn Jr. and Justus.

"It's hard to come to a new track because you have to get to know the trainers and the owners. Many of them are all new to me," Parker said. "But I wanted to give it a shot. My family supports me being away and I just wanted to see how well I could do at another track."

His wife agreed with his decision.

"He's doing it for us," said Maria Parker, 38. "But the truth is, it's hard being separated, especially for the kids. But we always said we would support him. It's hard when he's 15 minutes away; it's even harder now. If something was to happen, we are so far away. I just pray he stays safe every day."

The family watches him race via satellite. He's already had some success in Tampa Bay. As of Feb. 24, he had won eight races, finished second 12 times and third 13 times. He has earned $136,058 thus far, according to figures from Tampa Bay Downs.

"I like his work ethic and the way he rides," said Tim Rycroft, the trainer for Barn 21 out of Canada, after Parker raced one of his horses at Tampa Bay Downs. "He's a smart rider, very aggressive and he fits my horses pretty well."

For Parker, riding a large animal at top speeds is a natural fit, even though he's 5 feet 10 — really tall for a jockey. He said he eats once a day to maintain his 115 pounds.

"I wanted to play baseball but I never got the weight," he said with a laugh.

• • •

It isn't just his height that is a rarity.

"There are less than five African-American jockeys out there," said Margo Flynn, Tampa Bay Downs' vice president of marketing and public relations for 17 years. "There are very few black jockeys in the country. It was common in the 1800s, but size, among other things, made the pendulum swing a bit towards the Latin rider."

Black jockeys were once in the forefront of horse racing. A black jockey, Oliver Lewis, won the first Kentucky Derby in 1875. In the first 15 years of the famous horse race, black jockeys won 13 times. Historic figures among black Derby winners include Jimmy Winkfield and Isaac Murphy, who won 44 percent of his career races.

But in the early 1900s, African-American jockeys vanished from the Kentucky Derby. The first to ride again was Marlon St. Julien in 2000.

"For a long time, African-American youth were not welcome to participate in the front line of the sport as athletes," said Maryjean Wall, the author of How Kentucky became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders and the racing writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper for 35 years.

"They could be exercise boys in the morning but not jockeys," Wall said. "There was no law, but it just didn't happen. … For a long time, horse racing wrote blacks out of memory."

Miles Dean, director of Black Heritage Riders, a group that promotes the history of African-Americans and their connection to horses, said it wasn't the horse owners who pushed blacks out.

"It was the gamblers and Klan members who got into it and threatened the owners to push the black jockey out," Dean said. "If you have a million-dollar horse and they say they will chop the horse's head off if you let a black man ride it, then what do you do?"

Dean's organization will celebrate the black jockey in Louisville, Ky., on Memorial Day weekend, May 27-29. "National Day of the Black Jockey" will include educational workshops, plenary panels, a parade of horses at Churchill Downs and a dinner-dance gala.

Parker is aware of the sport's history and his place in it, but right now he's focusing on the present and future.

"If you are not winning, they forget you," he said. "And the only way we (jockeys) make money is to win. But it's really all about the competition. I love it. It's something that's in your blood."

Contact Demorris A. Lee at or (727) 445-4174.

Black jockey at Tampa Bay Downs is a modern rarity 02/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 26, 2011 1:53pm]
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