Some people have to overcome one large obstacle to achieve their goals. DeShawn Parker climbed three different hurdles to get what he wanted.
Maybe that’s why success tasted even sweeter for Parker Aug. 17 when he stood in the Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort winner’s circle aboard Wildcat Cat after collecting his 3,000th career victory, a milestone the 38-year-old jockey would have never dreamed of 20 years ago.
“It meant a lot. I never thought I’d be riding this long, let alone have that many wins,” Parker said. “It was a great night.”
Parker may be a relatively obscure name for some Thoroughbred racing fans, but only to those who do not regularly look at the national jockey standings. Parker, who is based at Mountaineer, ended 2008 as the nation’s second leading rider with 333 wins and as of Sept. 24, was tied for third this year with 223 this season. Not bad for a guy who had to overcome height, skin color, and a lack of opportunity due to his father’s position in racing.
“I’ve always had people tell me I couldn’t ride for one reason or another. That just gave me more motivation to succeed,” Parker said.
Parker grew up in Cincinnati, where he learned about horses from his father, Daryl, who was a groom and an exercise rider for many years. By age 9 Parker knew he wanted to ride horses for a living, but as he got older, his first major obstacle began to surface.
“I was always a tall kid and by the time I was 16, I was about 5-foot-10,” Parker said. “I was only about 113 pounds—I was skinny—but people started telling me I was too tall to be a jockey.”
Parker did not pay attention. He picked up his first mount in 1988 while still in high school and decided shortly thereafter he still wanted to make riding his career—height issues or not.
After graduating high school, Parker decided to make nearby Thistledown his base, but there was another problem: His father was a steward there.
“Management let him ride a few races there, which is where he got his first win, but we understood he couldn’t stay. It was too much of a conflict,” said Daryl Parker, who became the first African-American steward in Thoroughbred racing in 1986 and is currently a steward at Pinnacle Race Course in Michigan. “I told DeShawn, it was going to be either my job or his.”
With that, DeShawn Parker hit the road, first to Detroit Race Course and Turfway Park for brief stints and then on to Mountaineer. Because of his height and inexperience, it took him a while to pick up regular mounts. Parker was also one of the few African-American riders in the country.
“My dad and some of the black riders helped break a lot of the barriers for me,” said Parker, who credits the late trainer Oscar Dishman as being a big influence on his career. “I didn’t encounter any racism at the track and for the most part people were very good to me, but it was still tough. You feel a little bit like an outsider at first. It took me a while to get mounts.”
Parker’s skill and superb work ethic gradually helped overcome his three obstacles, and by the early part of this decade, he was winning riding titles at Mountaineer. In the summer of 2005, after surpassing the 2,000-win mark, it is believed that he became the all-time winningest African-American rider.
“I’ve very proud of all that I have accomplished, especially with all I had going against me,” said Parker, who is married with two children and lives near East Liverpool, Ohio. “I still have a lot of goals left though. I want to ride in the Derby and Breeders’ Cup and break in with some bigger outfits. I went to Oaklawn last year and plan on going again for their next meet.”