Kendrick Carmouche grew up in the heart of Cajun country in Louisiana. He moved to Philadelphia five days shy of his 17th birthday.
Carmouche, who is African-American, didn’t think he could pursue his dream of being a professional jockey at the racetracks in his home state.
“They wouldn’t give a colored person a good shot like the other guys,” Carmouche said. “It’s more racist where I’m from than here. That’s one reason my parents told me just to leave. Go do the right thing, because the world is not the same in Louisiana. It’s different out there. I never looked back since.”
After a successful run at Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pa., where he won five riding titles, Carmouche is trying his first year on the highly competitive New York Racing Association circuit.
“All the top jocks are here, and you’ve got to fight your way to the top,” Carmouche said. “It’s very difficult, but anything can be accomplished.”
Carmouche, 31, is riding regularly at Saratoga Race Course for the first time this summer. He’s the first African-American jockey to hang his tack at the Spa in recent memory.
Allan Carter, historian for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, said the last black rider to race on a regular basis at Saratoga was James Long in the 1970s.
Many black jockeys rode at Saratoga and other major racetracks in the 19th century, Carter said, until almost all disappeared because of prejudice.
In the most recent study done in 2013, the Jockeys’ Guild said there are between 30 and 50 African-Americans among the 1,000 jockeys across the country.
Carmouche said he doesn’t believe his race has cost him business with owners and trainers during his time at tracks in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia.
“It’s an obstacle if you look at it that way,” he said. “I don’t look at it that way. I look at it as I’m equal as everybody else. No matter what color you are, if you have talent, they’re going to ride you.”
Carmouche has racked up 2,655 victories during his 15-year career, though he is still pursuing his first Grade I win. One of his closest calls was a second place on Joint Return in the Alabama at Saratoga last year. Carmouche came in from Parx for the day for that stakes.
Through 16 days of this year’s meet, Carmouche has six victories in 57 starts. He earned his first graded stakes victory at the Spa when he rode Goldy Espony to a 31/4-length triumph in the Grade III Waya for trainer Chad Brown of Mechanicville this past Saturday.
New York trainer Bruce Levine often used Carmouche when he shipped horses to run at Parx. Now Levine is giving Carmouche some mounts at Saratoga.
“He tries with everything, and he gives you a good ride, so I’m happy with him,” Levine said. “He’s off to a pretty good start.”
Carmouche explained he was ready for a new challenge after taking the Parx title four straight years from 2008 to 2011 and then again in 2013. He moved his business to Aqueduct late this winter and rode at Belmont Park during the spring/summer meet.
“I was very mature in my mind and with my riding,” Carmouche said. “I’ve been at Parx for a long time where I polished all of my skills to be in the circuit of New York to ride with these guys. Ain’t nothing else I could have accomplished in Philadelphia.”
His wife, Whitney, and two children, Olivia and Kendrick, have joined him in Saratoga for the meet.
His father, Sylvester, a retired Louisiana jockey, approved of the move.
“I told him he can go anywhere,” Sylvester Carmouche said. “He’s a good rider because of where he comes from.”
Kendrick Carmouche, who grew up in Lafayette, La., began riding when he was 10 years old and galloping horses when he was 12. He had his first race at Delta Downs at age 16 and then moved to Evangeline Downs before making the trek up to Pennsylvania.
Carmouche rode many of the best horses at Parx. He acknowledges it’s harder to get business at Saratoga when trainers would rather use star jockeys like Hall of Famer John Velazquez, two-time Spa champion Javier Castellano or the up-and-coming Irad Ortiz Jr.
“I think I can ride with them,” Carmouche said. “I think I’m just as smart as them. The main thing is getting the right horses to prove that where the trainers can be like, ‘Kendrick belongs here.’ I think so far, so good.”