Five months after breaking his right leg, Kendrick Carmouche needed to get back on a horse.
“I start watching those horses go around the track,” he said, mimicking goosebumps popping up on his arms and tingling in his fingers. “That itch came back.”
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Carmouche came back with a vengeance from his fall and serious injury in 2018 and this May became the first Black jockey in eight years to ride in the Kentucky Derby. He’ll get his first career Belmont Stakes mount Saturday at one of his home tracks in New York, his second Triple Crown race of the season and another testament to Carmouche’s growth as a rider.
“Opportunity was the key,” Carmouche said Thursday. “That’s all I pretty much needed. It’s up to me to keep it going from here.”
Carmouche has won 10 graded stakes races since returning from his injury, most recently the Wood Memorial on April 3 aboard Bourbonic. That’s the same horse he rode in the Derby and will be back on in the Belmont.
Recently elected Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher wouldn’t have chosen Carmouche to ride Bourbonic if not for his success at Aqueduct in New York last fall that showed his potential.
“It just increased his opportunities and given him a chance to ride better and better horses, and he’s delivered in those cases,” Pletcher said. “Kendrick has been riding really, really well. He’s a very accomplished rider. But over the past seven or eight months, he’s taking his game to a new level.”
Carmouche believes getting better horses allowed him to show different abilities than earlier in his career. Analysts have noticed, too.
“Any time a rider can have success on the New York circuit, you know he’s got a lot going for him,” Randy Moss said. NBC Sports colleague and retired jockey Jerry Bailey added Carmouche is “very confident in himself and his ability, and he’s a very aggressive rider.”
Bailey thinks Carmouche can be intimidating to other jockeys because of that self-confidence and aggressiveness. But Carmouche, now 37, also wants to pass it along, and would, in a team sport, be considered a glue guy who’s good in the locker room.
Whether it’s checking on a rival rider who falls off a horse or imparting some advice on younger counterparts, Carmouche takes that leadership role seriously. He remembers what it was like trying to break in professionally two decades ago and wants to ease others’ concerns now.
“When you got a lot of young guys, you try to lead them the right direction every chance you get,” Carmouche said. “That’s just me. I’m trying to make them understand the game a little bit better than them being frustrated or whatever about it.”
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Carmouche could’ve been frustrated by six months on the shelf injured, but insists there was “never was a negative thought” in his mind while sidelined. Dreaming of riding in Triple Crown races while slumming it at unsanctioned “bush” tracks in his home state of Louisiana growing up helped motivate him to keep trying.
Now, the New York circuit is home, and Carmouche wants to celebrate this milestone with his wife, children and fans at the Belmont.
“It means a lot,” he said. “You dream it, but you don’t know if it’s ever going to come true. I always put myself in the right situation where it could’ve come true. That’s the most important thing. Each step I took to get to New York, it was a winning step for me and my family.”
Along the way, Carmouche only gained confidence and had enough stored up to handle a lengthy absence and come back better than before.
“Nothing can stop me,” he said. “It’s all about having the right mind and not thinking you have to start over because you put enough in the industry where people respect you and going to give you a shot again.”