Perhaps the greatest legacy a man can leave behind is found in the hearts of the people whose lives he touched along the way.
Since his father's passing on March 5 of this year, jockey DeShawn Parker has found himself humbled by the number of people reaching out to tell him stories about Daryl Parker going out of his way to be kind to them.
“Dad loved everybody; there's not one person he came across he didn't try to help,” said DeShawn, 50. “So many people came up to me just to tell me how nice he was. That was the biggest part of him.”
Daryl Parker, the first African-American hired in the U.S. to be a steward in 1986, spent his career adjudicating racing at smaller tracks near the family home Ohio. His reputation was that he was extremely fair in the booth, and always found ways to help people outside his official role.
“You always felt like you should thank him for giving you days, almost,” said DeShawn. “Even when you definitely deserved days, he'd say, 'Well, do this next time, and that'll make it a little better.'”
The sentiments surrounding DeShawn's father echo those in a recent video produced by Sam Houston Race Park announcer Chris Griffin. DeShawn wintered at the track for several years, earning leading rider honors in 2019, and the video depicts members of the local jockey colony congratulating him for being voted the winner of the 2021 George Woolf Memorial Award.
One of the most prestigious awards in all of racing and named for the legendary late Hall of Fame jockey, the Woolf Award recognizes those riders whose careers and personal character garner esteem for the individual and the sport of Thoroughbred racing. The winner is selected via a nationwide vote by other jockeys.
“He's been incredible to ride against, and he's a great person, too,” jockey Sophie Doyle said in the video from Sam Houston. “He's always helpful and friendly at every racetrack I've ever ridden against him.”
“He's a great ambassador for the sport, a jockey we all look up to,” said Lane Luzzi.
“Not only is he a phenomenal rider, consistently doing it every year, but just being a great person,” added Reylu Gutierrez. “Congratulations DeShawn, you are an amazing rider and an amazing person, and I really look up to you.”
This apple obviously didn't fall far from the tree. Daryl didn't choose to impart his wisdom to his son through his words, however. He showed DeShawn what it meant to be a good man by his actions, inspiring his son to live up to that example.
Father and son grew up around the racetrack, their passions for the animal and the competition fostering an especially close relationship. Though Daryl Parker had to leave the steward's role for races in which DeShawn rode, he was fully supportive of his son entering the sport they both loved.
“They said it was a conflict of interest, but honestly, sometimes my dad was harder on me than anybody else,” DeShawn said, laughing. “He never got on me too bad about anything because I never tried to ride careless, but he wouldn't sugarcoat things. He'd say, 'You definitely deserved to get days for that.'”
Billy Johnson with Deshawn Parker
Since his father was based in Ohio, DeShawn ventured across the state border to Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, where he became the perennial leading rider for more than 20 years. While there, DeShawn worked with the late agent Billy Johnson, who helped him become the No. 1 rider in the country by wins in 2010 and '11.
“Everybody liked Billy, he's just one of those guys,” Parker said. “Never a bad word about him. Even if he spun the trainers, he would smooth it out so they weren't upset with him. He tried hard for everybody.”
They won a title together at Sam Houston in 2015, but with race days and purses declining in West Virginia, Parker made the decision to transfer his home track to Indiana Grand during the summer months. That meant a switch in agent to a mutual friend, Jimmy McNerney, for the 2017 season in Indiana.
DeShawn finished second in the standings in 2017 and 2018, fourth in 2019 despite missing time due to an injury, and finally won the title at Indiana Grand in 2020.
“This is the best thing of the meet and of my year,” DeShawn told track publicity after the title was official. “I had some chances the past couple of years to win [the title], but I got hurt and it just didn't work out. My agent, Jimmy, always does a good job but he did an exceptional job this year for me, and I was able to stay healthy. I can't put into words what this means. This means so much to me.”
Unfortunately, 2020 was also the year that Daryl Parker spent battling a cancer diagnosis. He missed nearly the entire year of racing, and DeShawn could see how much that wore on his father.
“He loved his job, being on the track, and in fact he turned down some treatments in Cincinnati so he could go back to work,” DeShawn said. “I think he was already kind of getting depressed, sitting there doing nothing all day.”
Though Daryl had been pronounced cancer-free and returned to the stewards' booth for three weeks, the disease returned with a vengeance in December.
“It came on so quick, and he was one of those guys who was never really sick,” DeShawn said. “We knew the cancer could come back at any time, but it really hit him hard.”
Drryl was hospitalized from mid-December until his passing on March 5, and initially COVID-19 restrictions meant no family members were able to visit with him. By February, they'd moved to a different hospital and one person at a time was allowed in.
“I went every day that I was home, and we just sat there and talked,” DeShawn said. “I'm glad he got to go back to work; I don't think he would have had it any other way. They'd call him sometimes, the other stewards, like for advice on something, and you could just tell he wanted to be there.”
As the start of the 2021 season approaches at Indiana Grand, DeShawn feels like the best way to honor his father's memory is to continue working every single day at embodying the characteristics the man stood for. Compassion and kindness above all else, even when it's hard — that's Daryl Parker.
It isn't an easy thing to ask of a jockey. Every day, multiple times a day, your coworkers are trying to finish ahead of you out on the track. Add to that pressure the inherent danger of race-riding, and the jockey's quarters can easily become a pressure cooker of negative emotions.
“We all have to put that smile on our face every day, even when you get trainers complaining and maybe you don't want to say 'Thank you' and walk away,” DeShawn said. “On the track, when you get mad, you have to leave it out there because if you keep on being mad you're just going to make yourself look bad. We're all trying hard, doing the same job.”
It's that sportsmanship and positive attitude, maintained over a career of 5,846 wins to date, which earned DeShawn the Woolf Award. If he gets a bit emotional when he sees that award sitting on his shelf, it's easy to understand why. His father's inspiration and ever-present influence are what helped DeShawn to become the man worthy of such an honor.
“Our goal was to one day be stewards together at a track,” DeShawn revealed. “We may not get to do that, but I know he's riding with me now, so I just look at it that way. He's getting to do something he never got to do before, and I get to have him with me in the saddle.”
DeShawn Parker, winner of the 2021 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award