Yes, his seventh-place effort aboard Polly Freeze in the day’s first race marked the first time Deshawn Parker had ridden a mount beneath the Twin Spires. But when a jockey has booted home more than 4,800 winners, accumulated more than $55 million in career earnings and led the nation in wins twice (2010, ’11), unfamiliar and uninitiated just aren’t proper descriptions.
Nearly three decades into his career, Parker has been stepping into newer territory with greater frequency, branching out from his base at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort in West Virginia where he carved out an enviable niche.
Some trying circumstances on that circuit have necessitated Parker leaving his comfort zone. For a rider whose attitude has always swung toward the positive, Parker fittingly is already in position to add some milestones to his storied career.
The main reason behind Parker’s venture to Churchill Downs this week is to ride recent maiden winner Shoot Craps in Saturday’s Grade III, $100,000 Bashford Manor Stakes for 2-year-olds, one of two graded stakes and four stakes races total taking place on the closing night of the track’s Spring Meet.
Remarkably enough given the sheer volume of Parker’s numbers, a victory in the 6-furlong Bashford Manor would mark the first graded stakes win of his 27-year riding career. He has ridden in only seven other graded stakes, a stat that is both the product and the trade-off of being the dominant figure at a small-market track.
“(Winning a graded stakes) has never been out of my mind, but the reality is you just don’t come across those type of horses in the area that I’m riding at right now,” said the 44-year-old Parker, who is also slated to ride Tia Chuy in the $100,000 Debutante Stakes for 2-year-old fillies Saturday. “But that’s why we’ve been venturing out a little bit, been working on trying to get on better horses and do better things.
“We rode at Turfway this past winter, went to Sam Houston and had some success. Basically trying to figure out where we can go now that Mountaineer is slowing down on their race days.”
Parker has been the king of Mountaineer since setting up shop there about 18 years ago, routinely leading those standings while consistently landing in the top 10 nationwide for wins.
However, strife has hit that track, with purse reductions announced in February and the recent approval by the West Virginia Racing Commission to cut 50 days from the 2015 Mountaineer schedule. With the year-round circuit disintegrating, Parker and his longtime agent, Billy Johnson, have been casting a wider net of opportunity.
“It used to be basically year-round racing and I didn’t have to be away from my kids and my wife for long,” Parker said of Mountaineer. “It was one of those things that worked out perfectly at the time, but now that they’re starting to cut back racing, it’s making it easier to venture out and see what we can stick our feet in and maybe settle somewhere else at a bigger track.”
Parker is a big deal no matter what track he walks into.
Parker stands “somewhere between” 5-foot-10 and 5-11, making him an outright giant among his fellow jockeys. He is the winningest black jockey in history and his father, Daryl Parker — the state steward at Thistledown — is a trailblazer himself as he became the first black steward in the sport in 1986.
“He was probably my worst agent I ever had,” Deshawn Parker laughed, recalling one year his father took his book at Turfway. “A lot of people would get to talking to him about racing and other things and wouldn’t even think about putting me on a horse. But he’s my biggest supporter. It was just a great thing for my career to grow up in the industry.”
Despite his height, Parker says he doesn’t battle the scale nearly as much as some of his comrades thanks to a naturally lean frame he has boasted since childhood.
“I actually always tried to gain weight growing up,” he said. “(Weight) has never been that big of a challenge.”
Making his presence positively known at a new track hasn’t been an issue, either.
Thanks to a fortuitous conversation between Johnson and Dane Kobiskie, trainer of Shoot Craps, Parker landed the mount on the colt when he made his second career start at Belmont Park on June 7.
Having previously run third in his debut on the main track at Churchill on May 23, Shoot Craps showed versatility with Parker in the irons when he won going 5 furlongs in track-record time on the Belmont turf. Shoot Craps drew post five in the eight-horse Bashford Manor and stands as the 2-1 second choice on the morning line.
Parker, who was riding at Belmont Park for the first time, found himself surrounded by welcoming rivals in his maiden voyage over the monstrous oval. His stout reputation preceded him, and it’s one he’s now in position to enhance.
“A lot of the guys that are at the tracks I’ve been to, I’ve ridden with before so it’s not like I’m having to prove anything,” he said. “They’ve all started out at the lower tracks and been lucky enough to venture off to bigger tracks.
“I thought maybe going into New York you have to prove yourself, but once I got there they make you feel like you’re home.”