Growing up in Louisiana as the son of a jockey, Carmouche got an early taste for the lifestyle when he’d wake up at 4:30 a.m. to follow his father to the area bush tracks.
He finally started riding professionally in 2000, at the age of 16 and has enjoyed a 21-year career taken from Louisiana to Texas to Philadelphia and now has him positioned as one of the top jockeys in New York.
He endured a painful six-month recovery from a broken leg suffered in a September 2018 race at Kentucky Downs but has come back to experience some of the greatest achievements of his career, including the 2020 fall meet riding title at Aqueduct and his first Grade 1 victory in December.
“If you don’t dream it, it’s never going to happen,” the 37-year-old Carmouche said. “I dreamed it. To be here at this point and how long it took and the hard work that I put in to get to this point … going to the Kentucky Derby, this is icing and everything on the cake.
“You have to polish yourself. You have to ride smart. You have to do all the correct things and grind it out until that happens. This is where I want to be.”
Carmouche will have the Derby ride on Bourbonic, the Todd Pletcher-trained colt who won the Grade 2 Wood Memorial at 72-1 odds on April 3 at Aqueduct. He’ll become the first Black jockey in the Kentucky Derby since Kevin Krigger, who finished 17th on Goldencents in 2013.
Black jockeys ruled the Kentucky Derby in its early days, winning 15 of the first 28 races. Oliver Lewis won the inaugural Derby aboard Aristides in 1875. Isaac Murphy won three Derbys in eight years aboard Buchanan (1884), Riley (1890) and Kingman (1891).
“I think people just need to open their eyes and realize it doesn’t matter what colour you are,” he said. “You work hard. You’re an honest person. You want the best for you and your family and the team you’re putting together at the track so you can win races. It’s no black or white. It’s just purple or green, whatever you want to call it. We all bleed the same.”
‘Get the hell out of Louisiana’
To hear Carmouche speak about race relations is to hear his father speak about race relations.
Sylvester Carmouche Jr. began riding professionally in 1978 and retired in 2013 at 54 after suffering a broken neck. According to Equibase.com, he finished his career with 1,348 victories and more than $11.6 million in purse earnings.
He said he never was denied opportunities because of his race.
“I never looked at that,” Sylvester Carmouche, 62, said. “People were good to me, and I got a lot of respect. I never had any problem with people.”
Kendrick Carmouche said he learned how to treat people of all races while following his father around tracks as a kid.
“He taught me just to look and pay attention and listen,” he said. “That’s the key thing.”
Kendrick Carmouche first started riding in Louisiana at Delta Downs, Evangeline Downs and Louisiana Downs, and Texas at Sam Houston. In 2001, with the help of former jockey agent Jack Servis, Carmouche moved north and began riding at Philadelphia Park.
Carmouche said leaving home wasn’t difficult.
“My parents told me to get the hell out of Louisiana,” Carmouche said. “They told me, ‘Go make yourself your own home.’ People get it twisted. They try to make their home where they’ve been all their life. You can’t do that. You’ve got to go make your own home with your own family, your own kids.”
Sylvester Carmouche said he and several other family members plan to be in Louisville on Derby Day to watch Kendrick ride.
“I never thought I was going to have one of my sons in there,” he said. “It means a lot. I told him, ‘God has a plan for you. Just live it.’ …. to see him in the paddock, I’ll be so happy to be there with him and support him.”
‘Coming to get those roses’
Kendrick Carmouche has compiled nearly 3,400 career victories and more than $118 million in purse earnings during his career, but he was fortunate it didn’t come to an end in September of 2018.
Riding in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile Turf Sprint, Carmouche’s mount Chattel clipped heels with another horse. Carmouche sustained a hairline fracture of his right femur when he went down in a spill.
“There was no doubt in my mind I’d come back,” he said. “No such thing. Not in my life. I have two kids. I tell them that regardless of the obstacle, you have to keep pushing.”
Carmouche kept pushing and finally got his first Grade 1 victory aboard True Timber in the Cigar Mile on Dec. 5 at Aqueduct.
He couldn’t have imagined Bourbonic would help him get to the Kentucky Derby for the first time, especially after a last-place finish on Nov. 14 at Aqueduct. Carmouche suggested to Pletcher to add blinkers for Bourbonic’s next race, and the son of Benardini is 3-1-0 in four starts since.
Pletcher credited Carmouche with a “clever ride” in the Wood Memorial, as he rallied Bourbonic from the last place early in the race to win by a head over Dynamic One and clinch a spot in the Run for the Roses.
“He knows how to fight, and he knows how to pass horses,” Carmouche said of Bourbonic. “He ain’t coming next to you to play around with you. He’s coming to run. Some 3-year-olds get there and play around. This horse is seasoned, and he’s bred to make the distance.”
Carmouche is known for his aggressive riding style and admits some may consider him cocky.
Kevin Bubser, Carmouche’s agent since May of 2017, called him a “personable guy” who enjoys fishing.
The confidence flows when Carmouche begins talking about his chances in the Derby. He’s hopeful this will be the first of many trips to Louisville for the first Saturday in May, but he’s not going to throw away this shot.
“The only thing I should do is just park him right in the winner’s circle,” he said. “That’s what I’m thinking. I’m coming to get those roses, baby. If I’m 2-1 or 100-1, that’s the way I feel. … I’ve got the corn. I’m going to make the chickens follow me.”
Follow Jason Frakes on Twitter: @KentuckyDerbyCJ.