By Bill Finley
He grew up on the racetrack, mainly at the old Latonia, spending many a morning and afternoon there with his father Daryl, who worked as a jockey agent, an exercise rider and a racing official. And everywhere he went, Deshawn Parker saw people just like him. Young, Black and eager to make a name for themselves in the sport. It was the '70s and the '80s and at whatever track you went to, the majority of backstretch workers were African Americans. Today, they make up a small fraction of a workforce that is dominated by Hispanics.
It's shocking,” he said. “It went from being mainly all black and now there aren't many black people back there at all. Honestly, I have no clue why that is. I look at it and think about it every day, but I don't have an answer for you.”
While he can't answer why the demographics have changed so much, he is convinced that the absence of Blacks on the backstretch is a reason why there are so few African American jockeys today.
“I grew up on the racetrack and on the backside and that's why I became a jockey,” said the 49-year-old veteran. “There were a lot of people back there who wanted to be a jockey and the backstretch is where they got their start. Now you don't have a lot of Black families on the backside anymore, so you don't have Blacks who want to be a jockey. You don't get many people who didn't grow up in racing who decide they want to be jockeys.”
The history of Black riders in this country is well known. They dominated the sport in the 19th century. In the first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, 13 of the 15 riders in the field were Black. Since 1922, only two Blacks have had mounts in the race, Marlon St. Julien in 2000 and Kevin Krigger in 2013.
Today, there are other African American jockeys who have tasted success, but not many. Kendrick Carmouche won numerous riding titles at Parx and can usually be found in the top 10 in the standings at the NYRA tracks. C.J. McMahon rides first call for Karl Broberg at Evangeline Downs and Delta Downs, where he was the second leading rider at the 2019-2020 meet. Parker would like to see ain influx of new Black riders, but he doesn't see that happening.
But, if a young African American were to come around, they couldn't find a better role model than Parker or his father.
In 1986, Daryl Parker became a steward, the first African American in U.S. racing history to achieve that position. Deshawn was 16 at the time and, at 5-11, appeared to be too tall to be a jockey. But his father told him that if he finished high school he had his permission to be a rider.
The elder Parker has had to take some time off while battling cancer, but his son said he's doing well and should return to the stewards' stand soon. He works in Ohio at Thistledown and Mahoning Valley.
“I idolized him and always tried to learn from the way he did things,” Parker said of his father.
Parker struggled, winning just 60 races total over his first five years of riding. But he kept improving and by the late '90s was an unstoppable force at Mountaineer Park. In 2010, he led all riders in the nation with 377 wins, becoming the first Black jockey to hold that title since 1895, when James “Soup” Perkins was the leading rider in the nation. He was again the leading rider in the nation in 2011. When Mountaineer cut back on its scheduled and lowered purses, Parker left in 2016.
He's currently the leading rider at Indiana Grand. Entering Tuesday's card there, he had won 5,728 races from 34,379 mounts. He's 22nd among all jockeys in lifetime wins and seventh among active riders.
He has become far more than just the best Black jockey in America.
“While it's an honor to be the all-time leading Black jockey, you definitely want people to look at you as a good jockey, period.” he said. “You don't want to be categorized by your color or as just a good Black jockey. It's the same with a female or a Hispanic, most people just want to be known as a good jockey, period.”
Does he feel that he might have done even better or made it to a top circuit if not for the fact that he is Black?
“Sometimes I think the color of my skin has held me back,” he said. “I've never had anyone say anything racist to me to my face. I don't know what they are saying about me behind my back. But I'm not one to make excuses or find something to blame. If things aren't working out what I do is just try harder.”
He is a popular veteran, well-liked in the jocks room.
“I might be blind to a lot of things, but what I do is treat everybody with respect,” he said. “When I treat people with respect I expect the same in return. I always try to be polite and treat people the way I would like to be treated.”
Though he has several more good years to come, Parker has already set his goal for when he does retire. He wants to be a steward and envisions some day working alongside his father. If that happens, he will again be a rarity, an African American steward. He wishes there were dozens of Black stewards, but understands why that isn't the case.
“[African Americans] are not around the track as much as we used to be and I can't understand why,” Parker said. “Back in the day, it was all Blacks back there, working hard and busting their butts and looking to move up. Now, it's mainly Hispanic people. I don't know what happened or where all the Black people went. But when you don't have Blacks working in racing at any level, who is going to move up the ranks? You just don't have many Blacks on the backside or anywhere around the track anymore. It's a shame.”