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Top jockey looks forward to racing again

EAST LIVERPOOL — Jockey Deshawn Parker is used to going at a fast pace. He’s been racing horses since he was 16 but now the East Liverpool resident is stuck waiting for his next mount due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parker’s last race came on March 20 at Sam Houston Race Park in Texas. That meet was scheduled to run from Jan. 10 to March 28 but it was shut down early by Penn National, who also owns Mahoning Valley Race Course.

“When it got bad (Sam Houston) stopped running with fans,” Parker said. “It was just jockeys, trainers, grooms and the people who worked at the track for a while. It seemed like it was working out O.K., but I guess it was spreading so bad like everywhere that they couldn’t keep going.”

Parker ran all of his 2020 races but one at Sam Houston. In his 211 starts at Sam Houston he placed in the top 3 126 times, winning 50 races. His earnings totaled $1,260,834 which was the best of any jockey at Sam Houston during that meet.

“I was having a great year,” Parker said. “I was second (in wins) and only a few back from lead rider at Houston. I won a bunch of stakes races this winter, so I was looking for a heck of a year if I kept going.”

In Texas racing relies a lot on in-person betting since online and phone options are not available there. Simulcasting and off-track betting in other states do help Texas but it still does not have the aid of casinos like most places do.

Recently Texas legislature set aside $25 million to help racing in the state and so far it had been working. Wagering in the first two months of the year was $42.6 million which was up from $19.3 million in 2019.

“Their money was good this year because the state gave them some back but normally it’s not that good,” Parker said.

He said Sam Houston track employees and crew members had to wear masks and that there seemed to be an earnest effort by the track to take the necessary precautions needed to protect others from the spread of the virus.

“When we were running in Texas they checked our temperature before we came into the jockey room,” Parker said. “If you had a temperature you could not come in and had to go home. Normally you have a steam room and a hot box to lose weight, but they threw that out because they didn’t want you in tight quarters with another person.”

Parker came back home to Ohio hoping tracks would find a way to run in the coming months, but they’re in the dark at this point.

“We have no clue what’s going on as of right now,” Parker said.

Parker said there were no horses on the grounds of Mountaineer as of April 21. The live racing season there was set to open on Saturday but the casino has been closed for weeks due to the pandemic.

At Mahoning, racing was shut down on March 20 yet horses are still being kept there and are being trained.

“We appreciate them doing that,” Parker said. “Because if they didn’t allow that there would be a lot of horsemen with nowhere to go.”

Like everything else, there are immense financial pressures that come along with the pandemic.

“It’s bad on a lot of the trainers and owners,” Parker said. “They’re the ones that have to feed horses, try to keep them fit and try to pay the bills without any income coming in.”

Parker recognizes that if some tracks can’t go, it may have disastrous effects on the racing industry.

“There are a lot of tracks that are supposed to be running now that do not run long meets,” Parker said. “They run a two or three month meet and their whole season is pretty much over. There are a lot of tracks that might not even open up this year.”

There are outliers of course as some tracks have remained open in limited capacity.

“There are two tracks that are running now in Will Rogers Downs (in Oklahoma) and Fonner Park (in Nebraska),” Parker said. “They’re seeing $1 million dollars a day whereas before they would be lucky to see $200-$300 thousand a day. They’re benefitting because everyone is betting on them because there is nothing else.”

When racing resumes at some point, the 49-year-old Parker will be working to close in on Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey for 21st on the all-time wins list. Parker currently has 5,712 wins in his career, while Bailey has 5,893.

“I definitely want to keep winning races,” Parker said. “It’s definitely great to be in company with those guys. To be able to be in front of guys like that would be a heck of thing for me.”

The National Racing Hall of Fame has yet to come calling for Parker, but his win totals and milestones might push the issue in the coming years. In 2010, Parker led the nation in wins and repeated in 2011. He also has the most wins by any African American jockey in history in addition to being Mountaineer’s all-time wins leader.

“I honestly have never thought about (the Hall of Fame) but would love it if it happened,” Parker said.

Parker said he’s content on keeping going as long as it’s fun and he is winning. Racing is something that still appeals to Parker’s competitive nature.

“I don’t have any milestones in mind, I just go and leave it all out there,” Parker said. “What happens is what happens. I never say what I want to do because every time someone says what they want to do, it’s a struggle to get there.”

While he’s waiting to get back on the track, he said he is enjoying spending time with his son Justus who is a senior at Beaver Local High School. Another son DeShawn Jr. also graduated from Beaver Local High School and now works for Amazon in Connecticut.

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