Winston Churchill once said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
No one can really put into words the centuries-long bond between horses and humans, especially the emotional and sometimes mystical attachment we have had with these magnificent creatures throughout history.
But there are times when Churchill’s quote is taken to a far deeper level, and it would be a gross understatement to simply say that the outside of American Pharoah was good for the inside of Jon Parkerson, whose life had been in a downward spiral, haunted by the many demons inside him. From those demons spawned addictions to alcohol and a number of hard drugs, which in turn brought on drug-induced schizophrenia. He would sleep 18 hours a day from all the medications he was on, and at six-feet tall, his weight dropped from 180 pounds to 119. There were many times when all looked hopeless and he contemplated suicide. But with the support of his family and his affection for a horse named American Pharoah, Parkerson has turned his life around and has finally found peace and happiness.
Parkerson was born and raised in Mount Holly, N.J. (he has since moved to South Carolina), and after graduating high school he worked as a contract driver for the Hamilton post office.
In school he was labeled learning disabled and went to special education, but ever since his father took him to Freehold Raceway and he cashed his first bet, winning $60 on a $2 exacta wager, he became fascinated with the numbers and math of handicapping. He would draw a track out on a board and learned how horses break, where they enter the turns, and learned where they start at each distance, while watching numbers of race replays. For him, it was never about the money; he simply loved horseracing and all aspects of it, especially picking winners. Soon he began taking road trips with his father to Kentucky and seeing his favorite horse, Smarty Jones.
He had been in the hospital for a lung operation and his father went to the track to bet Smarty Jones in the Kentucky Derby. When he won it took his mind off the surgery and gave him only positive feelings.
But at age 21, he began to drink heavily and eventually began taking harder drugs that caused his schizophrenia, for which he still takes medication.
“They say you’re born with addiction; it’s basically a disease,” he said. “I suffered from depression from an early age. I used drugs and alcohol to be social and it got way out of hand. I didn’t get diagnosed with bi-polar depression until I was 30, so for years and years I suffered alone. Towards the end I was suicidal. I just gave up.
“My personal life was always a struggle and I had to fight for things other people took for granted. I have anxiety issues, for which I self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. I was diagnosed with bi-polar depression on top of drug induced schizophrenia. My relationship with my family was horrible, as they watched me go crazy. They watched me struggle in and out of hospitals and rehabs for 10 years.”
The deeper he plunged into drugs the deeper his life began to spiral downward. In 2014, Parkerson checked himself into the hospital, staying in the psychiatric ward for 30 days. When he was released he entered rehab for a total of 60 days.
“My family never gave up on me,” he said. “They were right there for me and would start crying because I was sleeping 18 hours a day due to all the medications, which weren’t even helping, and they thought horse racing would be out of my life due to my condition. I could never have done it without the love and support of my dad, mom, and brother. While I was in rehab my dad had a heart attack. I didn't find out until weeks later because they didn't want me to get upset and leave. That's when I really had to fight this thing. I felt like it was somehow my fault and I vowed from that point on to never go back.”
Then something happened that caused a major change in his life. Parkerson was watching the 2015 Arkansas Derby and fell in love with the runaway winner, American Pharoah, who just seemed to glide over the ground with smooth, graceful strides.
“American Pharoah gave me hope and someone to follow,” he said. “My heart had been ripped out when Smarty Jones lost the Belmont Stakes, and I vowed that day I won’t stop until I find that one horse that could win the Triple Crown. American Pharoah looked to me to be that horse. I watched the Kentucky Derby with my brother and his son and we cheered him on, then the same deal in the Preakness. Then my old way of thinking returned, that, after Smarty Jones, it was impossible for any horse to sweep all three races.
“When American Pharoah won the Belmont and the 37-year wait was over, I was surrounded by family and they all had tears in their eyes, and we began hugging each other. They knew how I felt about American Pharoah, and racing in general. American Pharoah’s win marked the turning point in my new life. He did something I only dreamed about. He gave me peace and all of us something to cheer about. But most of all he gave me hope and made me realize life can go on again.
“I was obsessed with the Triple Crown. Racing was my mistress and American Pharoah came along at the most important time, just when I needed him. He brought life back into me. It was a spiritual feeling like a gift from God for all of us to enjoy that was 37 years in the making."
May 1 will mark the third anniversary of Parkerson’s sobriety and he continues to attend meetings. He has regained all the weight he lost and is back up to 185 pounds.
“I want to be able to visit rehabs and hospitals and even jails to tell people about my experience and my strength and hope,” he said. “I feel that was the purpose of all my suffering, so I can tell others what it’s like. I'm just really enjoying life. When I watch the Derby now and they start singing “My Old Kentucky Home” it brings tears to my eyes and I just think about my struggle and where I’m at now. I'm a really happy man. I’m now a great son and brother and uncle.
“As much as I loved to bet, I had decided when I got clean I wasn’t going to bet anymore, so now I just handicap, pick one horse and let it ride. I’ve had more fun in the past three years than I’ve ever had.”
Parkerson moved into a new house in South Carolina and is beginning a collection of racing memorabilia. One person he thinks of often is Chris Antley, who was plagued by the same demons, but wasn’t as fortunate as him.
“Whenever I think of Chris and the millions of others we lose to addiction, I always say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ My dad found out where Chris is buried and we’re going to take a trip there soon.”
Parkerson will always be grateful to American Pharoah for coming along at a time when he needed him. He was the impetus to keep pushing forward and become emotionally involved with a horse again. And he gave him the opportunity to finally witness history.
“I’ve never been in contact with the Bafferts or Zayats,” he said. “Bob Baffert is the man and very humble in my opinion, and the Zayats did an amazing job handling all the fame extremely well.”
Life is all uphill now for Parkerson. “I’ve been given a fresh start and American Pharoah was just the beginning," he said. "I'm loving life every day and I don’t take anything for granted. It's like a higher power stepped in and I’m truly blessed to be alive and well.”