By Dick Jerardi
Saturday’s Pegasus Day at Gulfstream Park is the first major racing event of 2024. Kendrick Carmouche and his family had been looking forward to it for a few months. He was going to be riding Integration, a horse he said was the best he’d ever been on, in the $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf – until his agent was told two weeks ago that trainer Shug McGaughey had decided to give the mount to another rider.
“The hardest thing was to tell my wife and kids and my family,” Carmouche said. “They’ve been fighting this as long as I’ve been fighting to see me break through. I think it hurt them more than it hurt me.”
Carmouche has ridden in 23,297 races. He has won 3,791 of them, with 3,404 seconds and 3,059 thirds. His mounts have earned $145,125,481. He has won 38 graded stakes, but just a single Grade I, the 2020 Cigar Mile on True Timber.
His lack of Grade I success has nothing to do with his ability. It’s all about opportunity and he just has not been given the opportunity.
“You show that you have the ability to ride anywhere in the country,” Carmouche said. “Everytime they give me a small opportunity, it’s never five or six of them in a row where I can ride horses like this. Nobody’s better than me. I feel like I could be No. 1 in the country if I had the same horses as those guys…What can you do? Literally, what can you do?”
It’s the ultimate Catch 22. How can you win the big races if you don’t get a chance to ride the horses that win those races?
Everybody at Parx knows about Carmouche. He was so good for so long that he was elected to the track’s Hall of Fame. When he went to New York, he continued to win big despite not getting the prime mounts.
When McGaughey asked Carmouche this summer to ride a colt with just a maiden win that would eventually go off at 6-1 in the Grade III Virginia Derby, Carmouche went to Colonial Downs where Integration promptly blew past a very strong field that included Program Trading, a horse that had not lost before and has not lost since.
Carmouche rode Integration in the Nov. 18 Grade II Hill Prince at Aqueduct and the colt crushed the field by 5 lengths. The jockey immediately started dreaming about 2024 and what could be.
“I’ve never rode a horse this caliber before,” he said. “He’s special. He’s what every jockey dreams to ride. It’s going to help your career. I’m 22 years in. When you speak of future and prime, it’s right now. I worked hard for this.”
He absolutely worked for it. Instead, he will be at Aqueduct Saturday, continuing to grind away. He’s not bitter, just a bit mystified.
“It’s tough,” he said. “It really did hit me in the stomach, this one.”
Carmouche will watch the race and wish new rider Tyler Gaffalione no ill will.
“It’s not the horse’s fault,” he said. “I’m an animal person. I want the best for the horse.”
It is, obviously, part of the game. Carmouche’s good friend Frankie Pennington, also a Parx Hall of Famer, did everything right on the brilliant 2-year-old Maximus Mischief in 2018. But when 2019 began, Pennington was replaced.
“I have to move on,’’ Carmouche said. “I have to turn the page. But it’s just disappointing. Put that word in capital letters. I’m just DISAPPOINTED.”
And so many who have watched Carmouche’s career from the beginning are disappointed for him. He earned this opportunity. And then it was gone.