Unlike most of his peers, a teenaged Kendrick Carmouche already knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. While other guys his age were worrying about their biology homework or learning to drive, young Carmouche was already a professional jockey—and a damned good one at that.
On April 27, 2000, only a couple of months after his 16th birthday, Carmouche found himself in the winner’s circle for the first time, aboard Earl n Erin at Evangeline Downs in his home state of Louisiana. From that point onward, Carmouche’s schooling took place at the racetrack only. “Man, I remember it like it was yesterday,” Carmouche says. “You get that first win, and it makes you hungry for more. It’s crazy to think back on it—I was so young, but I had to be a grown man out there. I learned to be a professional at a young age, and I was ready for the challenge. Riding was the only thing I wanted to do.”
More than 20 years later, the adult Carmouche knows a thing or two about winning. Over his career in the saddle, he has garnered more than 3,400 wins with earnings of more than $120 million. And just this year alone, through May, he was ranked 11th nationally out of 922 jockeys in purse earnings, with more than $5.5 million. The 37-year-old jockey is now in the prime of his career and is regarded as one of the premier riders in the country. A consistent performer on the New York Racing Association circuit over the past few years, Carmouche earned his first Grade 1 victory with True Timber in last year’s Cigar Mile at Aqueduct and went on to become the meet’s leading rider.
This spring, Carmouche made history by piloting Bourbonic to a stunning victory in the Wood Memorial at odds of 72-1 to earn his first ride in the Kentucky Derby—making him just the fourth Black jockey to have a Derby mount in the 21st century, and the first since Kevin Krigger in 2013. Even more telling: When fellow Louisiana native Marlon St. Julian competed in the 2000 Derby, it marked the first time a Black rider had had a mount in the race since 1921.
Although Bourbonic ended up finishing 13th in the Derby, Carmouche understands the significance of his presence in America’s most prominent horse race. “As a Black rider earning my way into the Derby, I hope it inspires a lot of people—people of all colors—because my road wasn’t easy to get there and I never quit,” he says of being one of only a handful of Black jockeys in the racing world, both currently and historically. “What I’ve been wanting all my career is to inspire people and make people know that it’s not about color. It’s about how successful you are in life and how far you can fight to get to that point. I really believe anything can be accomplished if you want it bad enough and are willing to do the work.”
Hailing from the jockey hotbed of Louisiana—which has produced a string of Hall of Famers, including Calvin Borel and Kent Desormeaux, among others—Carmouche wanted to follow in the footsteps of those legends, as well as his father, Sylvester, who won more than 1,300 races during his riding career. “I learned everything from my dad about horses and how to ride,” says Carmouche. “He taught me balance on a horse, how to use my hands, pacing. Most of all, he taught me how to be a pro, how to work hard, how to treat people the right way. The riding knowledge was important, but the other stuff was more important.”
Although he found early success riding in Louisiana, Carmouche didn’t stay there for long. Just a few days before he turned 17, Carmouche moved to the Philadelphia area and began competing at the Mid-Atlantic tracks. He eventually became the leading rider at Parx Racing near Philly, where he won seven riding titles. Seeking the opportunity to move into the big leagues, Carmouche made the decision to ride in New York in 2015 and hasn’t looked back.
“It was the best decision for my career, but like everything else, I had to earn it and prove myself again,” Carmouche says. “I had to earn the trust of the trainers and show them that I belonged and that I would not be outworked by anyone. The best riders are in New York, and that’s where I wanted to be. I knew I could ride at that level. All I’ve ever asked for is opportunity, and I’ll do what it takes to make the most of it.”
Hall of Fame trainers Steve Asmussen, Mark Casse, Todd Pletcher and Bill Mott are among
the many who have given Carmouche mounts in recent years. He’s looking forward to this summer’s Saratoga Race Course meet, where he’s had solid success. “Saratoga is all about the top horses and the top jockeys,” says Carmouche. “Everyone wants to be a part of it, because the spotlight is on [you] every day. The competition brings out the best of you.” Carmouche takes absolutely nothing for granted. “I’ve worked hard to get to the point where I can ride in races like the Kentucky Derby and be successful at a place like Saratoga,” he says. “It’s like getting off the bench and into the big game. Once you’re in, you never want to go back.”