Cajun: An ethnic group mainly living in southwest Louisiana consisting of the descendants of Acadian exiles (French-speakers from what now is Nova Scotia) who have exerted an enormous impact on the state’s music, food and culture – Wikipedia
Anyone who follows U.S. racing knows about the Cajuns and their imprint on the game. The horsemen who have come out of the bayou and swamp areas centering on Lafayette, Louisiana have dominated racing in that state and rippled out to touch racing locales all around the country.
This is especially so when it comes to race riders. For many years now the phrase “Cajun jockey" has been comparable to, say, Kenyan marathon runner or Canadian hockey player. Ten times the Kentucky Derby has been won by a Cajun rider. Five times racing’s Hall of Fame has beckoned a Cajun jock.
A quick scan of a general Cajun jockey roster would include names such as Albarado, Ardoin, Avant, Bernis, Borel, Borque, Broussard, Carmouche, Delahoussaye, Delhomme, Guerin, Guidry, Hernandez, Jr., Lanerie, Meche, Melancon, Perret, Perrodin, Romero, Sellers and Sibille.
You can add three more names to that list and take them right off this year’s Del Mar jockey roster: Kent Desormeaux, Jamie Theriot and Joe Talamo.
Befitting their Cajun roots, their names have a lovely rhythm to them: “De-sor-mo,” “Therry-O” and “Tal-ah-mo.” If you mix in some fiddle, concertina and accordion, no doubt you could come up with a Zydeco tune that would have folks up and dancing.
And what the trio of Del Mar horsebackers has in common is starting their schooling – even before they started their careers -- in “the bushes,” the series of backwoods, unregulated and unshackled racetracks that flourished in southwest Louisiana from roughly the 1930s through the 1990s. They often were “bullrings” with rails (mostly) all the way around and starting gates for the beginnings; they sometimes were simply straights with rails down the middle for lanes and cow pastures for pulling up in. They featured mostly four-legged equines, primarily Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, though mules, Appaloosas, Shetland ponies, dogs and other sorts of four- and two-legged beasts and men that were capable of being matched up and bet on were occasionally employed.
They were all wild and wooly tailgating heavens filled with crawfish, gumbo, bar-b-q and other sorts of Louisiana treats cooking away; kingdoms filled with six-packs and kegs; man-on-man betting parlors (“I got $20 on the 2, you can have all the rest.”) where serious money regularly changed hands, and, in Cajun fashion, the tracks often were family-run. Besides all that, they also were among the great training grounds in all of sports.
Desormeaux, one of the most successful jockeys of our time who can brag of Hall of Fame credentials, three trips to the winner’s circle in the Kentucky Derby and nearly 6,000 winning rides on “legitimate” racetracks, just lights up in a smile when he’s asked about “the bushes.”
“Oh, man,” says the 47-year-old native of Maurice (10 miles southwest of Lafayette), “you’re talking about some seriously good memories now. I’ve got some stories to tell about those days.”
Theriot, 38, hails from Breaux Bridge (nine miles northeast of Lafayette), and took to riding in match races very early. “I was eight years old when I rode in my first match,” the rider says with a straight face. Yes, he said eight.
Talamo, the 27-year-old “kid” of the bunch, was born in Marrero, just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, which is about 135 miles east of Lafayette. “But I’ve got Cajun on both sides of the family,” he says. “Cajun and Sicilian. How scary is that?”
Though they came at it in different decades, they all went to Bushes School – Desormeaux when “bush racing” was in full swing; Theriot right at the very end of the “bush” era, and Talamo when one of the more famous “bush” tracks – the Quarter Pole in Rayne (18 miles west of Lafayette) – was reopened as a training center in the early 2000s and they ran “schooling” races for teenagers who wanted to be race riders.
“You know,” notes the vibrant Desormeaux, “I rode about a hundred races in ‘the bushes’ before I rode my first ‘real’ race. When I first rode at Evangeline (Downs in Opelousas, about 25 miles north of Lafayette) in 1986, they gave me a 10-pound bug. I thought I was stealing. I was full of confidence and knew I was ready.”
It didn’t take him long to show it. He went from Evangeline to Louisiana Downs to Maryland and a run of riding victories that have yet to be matched. He won 450 races in 1987 (and an Eclipse as the nation’s top apprentice); 474 races in 1988, and 598 in 1989 (and another Eclipse as the nation’s leading rider). His 598 victories in a year is the best ever recorded.
But back to Theriot and riding match races at the age of eight. For real?
“You bet,” says the long (5’ 7”) and wiry reinsman who has won nearly 2,500 races in 22 years in the “big time.” “My daddy (Harold) was a trainer; had about 60 head of horses back then. I first learned on Quarter Horses; really liked riding them. First match race I rode was on a Quarter. I was eight and weighed about 45 pounds at the time; they put me in against an adult. I beat him.”
That was the beginning; then it became a regular happening. “Every weekend,” Theriot recalled. “So much fun; so exciting looking forward to it. Three hundred or four hundred people yelling, shouting, cheering. The environment was so special. The people; the food. Bar-b-q. Oh, yes. It was all so good.”
Especially for a third grader.
Talamo wasn’t riding match races at eight, but he grew up with a horse in his backyard and was up on horseback not long after he learned to walk. He was galloping horses at 12 and riding “schooling” races at 14.
“I was 14 and riding in races at the Quarter Pole against Cody Meche, Randall Toups and David Borque,” he remembered. “We were all 14 or 15. I won a race on a horse named Marie Laveau (New Orleans’ famous voodoo queen). Boy, that was special. I was wearing a pair of jockey pants that Robby Albarado gave me. My father bet $20 to win on me. I got a roast beef po’ boy (sandwich). I felt like I’d won a Triple Crown race.”
Talamo had just finished 10th grade and got his jockey license and spent the summer riding at Louisiana Downs (in Bossier City, about 200 miles northwest of Lafayette). He’d promised his folks he was going back to school in September (“One of the great selling jobs of all time,” he says.) But he got hot at the end of the meet, rode that on into a hotter streak that saw him win the riding title (over Albarado) at Fair Grounds in New Orleans and get a call from Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel to come ride in California. More than 1,700 wins and $92-million in purses later, he’s a Southern California fixture.
One of Desormeaux’s favorite “bushes” tales deals with a mostly Quarter Horse named Skunk Em Up.
“Had some Appaloosa in him and the spots came up over his knee, so they couldn’t call him a Quarter Horse,” he reminisced. “But he was fast, really fast. I weighed about 90 pounds at the time and his trainer, Dale White, had me ride him in match races in Louisiana. He was down for good money -- $5,000, $10,000. We went three times, won all three. Then he set up another match in Mississippi. I rode in the van in the back with the horse, feeding him hay all the way over. We went like a shot there, too, and won that one. That was it, though. The game was up. Nobody would take him on after that.”
Among the great stories coming out of “the bushes” were sagas of “catch weight” races (you can put anyone or anything you want on a horse’s back – the lighter, obviously, the better). A classic example was when a chicken was tied on as the “rider,” an extraordinary bit of horsemanship made famous by a bit in the 1978 movie “Casey’s Shadow.”
Did our trio ride in any chicken races?
Talamo did not, but the other two did.
“Oh, yeah,” said Desormeaux. “I rode against chickens. I even remember a match race where both horses had chickens on their back.”
Theriot did it just once. Who, he was asked, won?
The rider lowered his head, then fessed up: “The chicken.”
For those so inclined, days in “the bushes” and fine tales of Cajun racing are well told in the 2008 book “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” by New York-based turf writer Ed McNamara. It’s a good read with a fine feel for a special place and its special people for anyone wanting to learn more about a most colorful and unique subject.
For those wanting an insightful thought from a man who was right in the middle of it all, here’s this from Desormeaux:
“You know, until Chris (Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron) started his jockey school in the last few years in Kentucky, this country really didn’t have a national one. Lots of other places do – Puerto Rico, Panama, South America. That’s a big advantage for a young rider. But in Louisiana – in “the bushes” – we had our own riding school. We learned lots of lessons and had lots of fun. In a lot of ways, you couldn’t have asked for a better one.”