Joe Parker thought he would be Pele. Or at least Chinaglia. Beckenbauer maybe? But it wasn’t meant to be. Instead of joining the New York Cosmos and soccer’s elite, Parker wound up becoming a hotwalker, a groom, an assistant, a trainer and – suddenly – one of Thoroughbred racing’s leaders of 2017 with 10 wins from 26 starts.
The statistics (nine wins at Aqueduct and one at Parx Racing) represent a career-high for Parker. He’s tied for fifth in the Aqueduct standings for 2017 and his 10 wins on the year put him on the first page of Equibase’s national standings – tied with Bob Baffert, Jack Van Berg and Christophe Clement among others. Parker has more wins than Graham Motion, D. Wayne Lukas, Jimmy Jerkens, Richard Mandella, Shug McGaughey, a whole lot of big names. Of the top 100 trainers by earnings this year, Parker’s .385 win percentage shows the way.
Of course, he’s talking about it.
“Tell Chad Brown I’m coming for him,” Parker said with a loud cackle Wednesday morning.
He’s got a long way to go to challenge Eclipse Award winner Brown, and knows the winning percentage probably won't last, but Parker is enjoying every minute of the new-found success. As usual, it’s come with workaday horses such as three-time winner Mr Palmer and in workaday races like those on Aqueduct’s inner track. But, hey, wins are wins. Parker paid credit to his staff, wife Betsy, some good luck, the support of new owner Rohan Ramdat and long-time client Wilfred Johnson.
Training a barn full of horses is a long way from the soccer pitch.
“I came to New York in 1972 to be a soccer player,” Parker said when asked how he got here from his native Trinidad and Tobago. “I played a lot of soccer and, yes, of course I was that good. I thought I was going to be a professional soccer player, but that didn’t work out. Those days are gone.”
Parker went to the racetrack one day with a friend and liked what he saw. Despite a complete lack of experience, Parker got a job walking hots for trainer Dick Dutrow.
“They watched me and laughed,” Parker recalled of the barn staff, Dutrow and sons Tony, Chip and Rick. “They asked me, ‘You ever walk a horse before?’ I said no, but they gave me a shot anyway.”
Parker soaked up all the knowledge he could, and turned the Dutrow job into another, then another. Ultimately, he became an assistant to trainer Bruce Levine and then struck out on his own. Call it up and down. Parker is far from big time, but has found success at various levels. He and Betsy live in Freeport, N.Y. with a dog and a couple of cats. They’re backstretch regulars at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga – maybe you’ve seen the golf cart with the “Joe Parker Stable” street sign in the back.
“We made that ourselves,” he said of the sign, literally a green and white street sign advertising a racing stable.
“I learned from some good people,” said Parker. “They taught me a lot of good stuff. Bruce Levine is top class, and the Dutrows were very good to me. Mr. Dutrow was a great man. I painted his house, and he put me to sit down with his whole family to have dinner. He showed me much love, treated me like a son.”
Parker’s shedrow in Barn 1 at Aqueduct near the five-eighths pole holds 19 horses. New owner Ramdat owns nine with a couple more headed north from Florida shortly. Mr Palmer is the star of the moment. He’s done nothing but win since joining the stable on a $20,000 claim from trainer Linda Rice Dec. 17. The 7-year-old son of Pulpit won for $25,000 Jan. 12, scored again (for $32,500) Jan. 27 and added an optional claimer Feb. 19. For Parker and Ramdat, the Kentucky-bred gelding counts $114,000 on the ledger. He tries to take one more step in the $125,000 Stymie Handicap at Aqueduct March 12.
The claim was Ramdat’s idea, though the success has been a team effort.
“I want to get this horse,” Ramdat told Parker. “I love his back class. Let’s get him for 20 (thousand) and see if we can move him up.”
To that point, Mr Palmer had won seven races (including two stakes) and started in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial, Grade 2 Indiana Derby and Grade 3 Discovery for Bill Mott, Charlton Baker, Pat Reynolds, Jason Servis, David Jacobson, Rudy Rodriguez and Rice.
The very definition of well-traveled, Mr Palmer was claimed in four consecutive starts, and five out of six, two seasons ago. Rodriguez dropped the slip Sept. 7, 2015 and Mr Palmer won four races and placed in six others before going to Rice’s barn Nov. 16, 2016. She ran him once, and Parker made his claim.
“We’re not saying we’re better than these people,” said Parker. “He was with a lot of trainers. We aren’t better than they are, but the horse is doing well and we’re happy with him and he’s happy with us. He is so happy in the barn right now.”
Ramdat wasn’t sure he was claiming a future stakes horse, but called his trainer plenty capable when making claims.
“I look up the horse and then I go over it with Joe,” the owner said. “He’s an easy guy to work with. I’ve known him seven, eight months now. He’s very straightforward, and we can talk it over and go over everything and work it out.”
Parker, 65, won five races last year and six in 2015 but also weathered back-to-back winless seasons in 2012 and 2013. Before the 2017 run, his brushes with greatness were starting What A Pear in Keeneland’s Grade 1 Ashland in 2009, finishing second with Johannesburg Star in the 2007 Count Fleet and Kate Is A Ten’s shadow-jumping victory at Belmont Park in 2014. Parker’s previous career-high in terms of wins in a single season came in 2009 with seven. He started his first horse in 1998, got his first win in 2001, but didn’t saddle more than a dozen starters until 2006.
When he worked for Dutrow, Parker was around King’s Swan. Dubbed the “King of Aqueduct” upon his retirement in 1990, he rose from claimer to multiple graded stakes winner including a victory in the 1986 Vosburgh for Dutrow. King’s Swan made 107 starts, won 31 times and earned $1.9 million. Parker called him an example.
“If you do right by the horses the horses are going to perform for you,” he said. “If you’ve got a good team behind you, horses will perform. You’ve got good people, a good owner, good exercise riders, good grooms, the horses are gonna talk. We work hard, have always worked hard. It’s not easy, but we love the game. I’m so excited about how things are going now.”
NOTES: Parker has two horses entered at Aqueduct for Saturday and Sunday . . . Parker is something of a regular in The Saratoga Special’s Worth Repeating section and also holds down a spot in the “Little Guys” Stable Tour at Saratoga from his barn at the harness track, though he hopes to have different stalls this summer.
Now aiming for the Stymie, Mr Palmer (below) wins for Rohan Ramdat and Joe Parker. NYRA photo