by Keith McCalmont
Kendrick Carmouche hasn't ridden in a competitive race since March 15 at Aqueduct Racetrack, on the last day of live racing in New York, but he has been far from idle as he looks to make a triumphant return this weekend at Oaklawn Park.
"Put me in, coach. I'm tired of warming the bench," Carmouche exclaimed over the phone from his home in Delaware which he shares with his wife, Whitney, and their two children Olivia and Kendrick.
The Louisiana-native will have three chances to make a winning return on Friday's card at Oaklawn Park led by New York-bred Ice Princess, who is entered in both the Grade 3, $400,000 Fantasy, a Kentucky Oaks qualifying race, and the $80,000 Gardenia. The veteran pilot also has the call on Futile in a claiming route and Mundacious in a maiden sprint on Friday's card.
On Saturday, Carmouche will pilot Grade 2 Jim Dandy-winner Tax in the Grade 2, $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap and longshot Mo Mosa in the first of two divisions of the Grade 1, $500,000 Arkansas Derby, which offers 100-40-20-10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top-four finishers.
The Oaklawn cards will be carried live on America's Day at the Races on FS1/FS2, the acclaimed national telecast produced by the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) in partnership with FOX Sports.
The 36-year-old Carmouche, in addition to running and riding the stationary bike, said he has found a unique way to keep fit while enjoying some family time.
"My wife is a very good rider. She has 15 horses on the farm because she coaches the University of Delaware equestrian team. So, I get out to the farm with the family to help with the stalls," said Carmouche. "Our kids ride and I get to ride a little bit with them. I help to take care of the horses right now because of everything that's going on with the pandemic. It's fun and I like to help out. Being around the horses keeps me happy."
The last time the popular New York-based rider missed this lengthy a stretch he was returning from a nearly six-month layoff after recovering from a broken right leg suffered in a spill at Kentucky Downs in 2018. It took Carmouche all of three mounts to find the winner's circle on his return, guiding Whistling Birds to a front-running maiden victory on February 28, 2019 at the Big A.
"It's a much different circumstance this time. I'm healthy and fit," said Carmouche. "When I found out I was going to ride, I went to Jonathan Sheppard's farm and I was able to get on some horses to test how fit I am... I'm good to go. It's like clockwork."
Both Tax and Ice Princess are trained by Danny Gargan. The 4-year-old Tax found great success in his sophomore season winning the Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct Racetrack and the Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga Race Course.
Last out, the normally prominent Tax stumbled from the gate in the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Invitational in an off-the-board effort. Carmouche said Tax is a professional racehorse.
"Watching him run this past year, he's usually a good gate horse," said Carmouche, who will pilot Tax for the first time. "Hopefully, the boss will tell me to ride my race and do what I think is best out there. He seems like an easy horse to get along with."
Ice Princess has won three-of-four starts including a last-out win in the Maddie May on February 23 at the Big A. Her lone off-the-board effort was a fourth in the Grade 1 Frizette in October at Belmont.
Although he'll be aboard Ice Princess for the first time in the afternoon, Carmouche said he is no stranger to the Palace Malice grey.
"I worked her when she was a baby when she was first starting to come to the racetrack," said Carmouche. "I know her well because I helped her get to the races. She's a kind horse and I'll let her run her race. Whether she goes in the small stake or the big stake, I don't know yet, but I like that she has the one-hole in the Fantasy."
Mo Mosa, a maiden winner at Turfway Park for trainer Mike Maker, is an outsider in the Arkansas Derby. He arrives at the nine-furlong test from a rallying third in an optional-claiming mile at the Hot Springs oval.
Carmouche, who will be aboard the Uncle Mo colt for the first time, said he won't worry about the tote board.
"That's why it's called horse racing," said Carmouche. "You just put them in the best position to make yourself a winner. Not just for you, but for the owner, the trainer, the groom, the hotwalker and everyone else. Anything can happen."
America's Day at the Races analyst Andy Serling said he is a fan of Carmouche, a 2015 inductee into the Parx Hall of Fame, where he won seven riding titles, including four straight from 2008-11.
"He's a thoughtful rider," said Serling. "He spent so much time riding at Parx where, a few years ago, it felt like the rail was always dead. Because he rode at a track that had real biases, he's a rider that is very in-tune to biases and is frequently the first rider to pick up on it. We don't have a lot of biases in New York, but when we do, it seems like Kendrick is usually on top of it faster than anyone else."
Serling said he appreciates Carmouche's willingness to use speed as a weapon.
"His strong suit is he's an aggressive rider and that aggression is rewarded especially because there is a general lack of aggression in a lot of racing," said Serling. "His style does help him, but at the end of the day, if you're not a good rider generally you're not going to get mounts."
With 3,257 wins from 19,835 starts, Carmouche is a leader in the jockey's room in a number of ways. Of NYRA regulars, only Hall of Famers John Velazquez (6,185) and Javier Castellano (5,244) have more career wins.
And yet, it could be argued that Carmouche doesn't get as much attention as he deserves in a colony that has produced the Eclipse Award-winning outstanding jockey for the past decade, led by Ramon Dominguez (2010-12), Javier Castellano (2013-16), Jose Ortiz (2017) and Irad Ortiz, Jr. (2018-19).
"It's hard to get that credit when you have nearly every Eclipse Award-winning rider of the past twenty years riding in New York," said Serling. "It's a very tough colony to get a lot of attention in unless you're winning awards or a lot of Grade 1s, and Kendrick doesn't ride a lot of the barns that win our bigger races, so it's tough for him to get headlines."
However, Serling said that Carmouche has earned the trust of arguably the sport's most vociferous critics - the horseplayers.
"The people that are full-time players and pay attention to the races on a day-to-day basis all recognize Kendrick's talent," said Serling. "It's great to win big races and get accolades, but at the end of the day if a rider can say he's earned the fan's respect, that's about as big a compliment as you can pay to a rider. And the regulars of New York, they respect Kendrick."
Carmouche has also earned respect for his off-the-track efforts. In 2017, he was named the recipient of the Mike Venezia Memorial Award, the prestigious honor bestowed upon a jockey who exemplifies extraordinary sportsmanship and citizenship.
Kim Weir, Director of Major Gifts and Planned Giving for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, said Carmouche demonstrated that positive community leadership once again last summer with a unique offering at a silent auction fundraising event.
Spurred on by a gumbo cookout to support the TRF held at Saratoga last summer by trainer Eric Guillot, a fellow Cajun, Carmouche offered to host and serve as head chef for a backstretch cookout held on Jockey Club Gold Cup weekend at Belmont Park.
"When Kendrick found out his fellow Cajun was doing this, he did not want to be out done," said Weir. "Kendrick's cookout was the hot ticket item at our summer fundraiser and there was so much positive goodwill and money raised for his efforts."
Carmouche curated a memorable event working in collaboration with Nick Caras, Programs Director for the New York Race Track Chaplaincy of America, and TRF board member Maggie Wolfendale, a NYRA racing analyst also set to appear on Saturday's America's Day at the Races broadcast.
"He did all the prep work himself the night before and then rode all day Saturday," recalled Weir. "Nick Caras was there to help to set things up in the Chaplaincy backyard and Maggie and her family served as hosts."
Carmouche said it's important to him to give back to the horses whenever he can.
"The horses do so much for us and when their career as a racehorse is over, it's important they have somewhere to go," said Carmouche. "I was pretty much born and raised on a horse and it means so much to me to make sure they live in good health and with good people around them."
While Carmouche has certainly accomplished a lot during a riding career that kicked off at the age of 16, there's still a lingering item on his bucket list - a start in the Kentucky Derby.
"It's everyone's dream to get to the Derby. You have to take each step, stay safe, work hard and persevere," started Carmouche. "But you need to have the right horse and opportunity to ride in those big races like the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and the Belmont."
Carmouche, in his 20th season as a rider, seems closer than ever to having his first Kentucky Derby mount as the most recent pilot of Grade 3 Swale and Grade 3 Gotham winner Mischevious Alex.
Trained by John Servis, who won the 2004 Kentucky Derby with Smarty Jones, Mischevious Alex has won four-of-seven starts. Carmouche hopped aboard last out for a gate-to-wire Gotham win.
"That horse runs a very good race. He breaks sharp, which means you can ride any type of race you want. You can control the pace or sit off," said Carmouche. "He's like those great Bob Baffert horses - they break and they just want to go and go."
Carmouche and Servis have combined to win 164 races and more than $6.2 million in purse earnings and the rider said he is optimistic that Mischevious Alex can carry his speed a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in September.
"When you're versatile and break that good, you can make the race what you need it to be," said Carmouche. "I believe in John Servis. He's been there before."
For now, Carmouche said he is excited about getting off the bench and back to the races on Friday even if he has to travel to Oaklawn Park, a track where he has won just 16 races, instead of the more familiar surroundings of Belmont Park.
"I've been in the game awhile and proved myself throughout my career wherever I've traveled. I'm looking forward to continuing that," said Carmouche. "There's nothing good on the bench but water and Gatorade... you can't win nothing on the sidelines."