Jockey Robby Albarado has known Jake Delhomme just about as long as he can remember, since they both caught the bug for horse racing as boys in south Louisiana.
Albarado went on to become a top-class jockey. Delhomme wanted to be a rider, too, but he literally grew out of that line of work by the time he was in middle school. Instead, Delhomme carried his athletic prowess up the ladder as a quarterback and defied huge odds to not only carve out a career in the NFL, but led the Carolina Panthers to within one play of winning Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Albarado watched closely as one of Delhomme’s biggest fans, but also as a kindred spirit: he knew the star quarterback was still consumed by the horse racing passion that they shared growing up a few miles apart in Cajun country.
“I always said that Jake would rather win a Kentucky Derby than a Super Bowl,” Albarado said. “It’s just in his blood, and he hasn’t changed one bit.”
Since retiring from football in 2011, Delhomme has gone right back to the world he grew up in. His father, Jerry, and brother, Jeff, are both trainers and the three of them breed and race horses together under the stable name Set-Hut LLC.
Jake Delhomme is about as hands-on as an owner gets, spending most mornings in and around the barn at the Evangeline Training Center, about a 15-minute drive from his home in Breaux Bridge, near Lafayette, La. He and his wife and two daughters live on the family farm, next door to his parents and down the street from his brother. Their best racehorse, a mare named Forest Lake who won several stakes races and earned more than $400,000, was born behind Jake’s house. She retired earlier this year and will be bred in Kentucky to More Than Ready.
Another mare from the same foal crop, Spartanburg, is still racing and opened the Delhommes’ winter season at the premier Louisiana premier track, Fair Grounds, with a victory on Dec. 1 in New Orleans. Delhomme was right there in the winner’s circle, holding a tack bag. Although still beloved as a celebrity in Charlotte and around Louisiana for his football fame, Delhomme is content right back where he started, immersed in the day-to-day life of horse racing.
“This is just who I am: I love horse racing,” Delhomme said. “I didn’t grow up hunting or fishing or playing golf. I was always in a barn. My grandfather, Sanders, started it all for us. That was Quarter Horse racing. He was an old cattleman and farmer and very involved in the bush track races. It’s something that I came by honestly. My dad worked for the state of Louisiana in the department of agriculture, but he always trained. We had a barn at the house and he always trained a few Quarter Horses at a time.
“In 1993, the year I graduated high school, we started to make the switch to Thoroughbreds. As the NFL progressed for me, we expanded on it and got into the racing even more. We’re not huge — it’s seven to 10 horses at a time — and I race strictly in Louisiana. I’m a big proponent of our racing down here, and that’s what makes it so much fun for me: when you can foal them in your backyard, raise them right there, and be with them day to day and have a horse like Forest Lake go on to do so well. Those are very rewarding days and nights at the races. I guess it fills that competitive void from football.”
Delhomme was a classic example of an overachiever on the gridiron. Undrafted out of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, he knocked on the door for six years, from practice squads in the U.S. to a couple seasons in the NFL Europe and returning to the states as a backup, before finally getting a chance to start for Carolina in 2003. He made a huge impact as the team rose all the way to the championship game that season, and he more than held his own going score for score with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in what was widely hailed as the best Super Bowl of all-time, with the Patriots prevailing 32-29 on a last-minute field goal.
Delhomme played a starring role for six more seasons at Carolina. Injuries and Father Time began to catch up with him when he moved on to the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans in 2010 and 2011, before calling it a career. He still is a near folk hero in Charlotte, as exemplified by colorful commercials he has done for Bojangles’ Chicken.
Delhomme also serves as a board officer for a regional bank and the Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders Association, but his sweet spot is at the training center with his father, brother, and the horses.
“He is the same guy he was 20 years ago,” Albarado said. “He doesn’t use his success in football to get him anything. He is right there working hard with horses because that’s what he wants to do.”
At this point, Delhomme is content competing mostly in the Louisiana-bred ranks and is not overtly striving for that Kentucky Derby goal that Albarado knows would mean so much to him.
“I love to compete in Louisiana, and that is by choice,” Delhomme said. “I do dabble in pinhooking horses [buying them as a weanling or yearling and re-selling them] at the major sales with a partner, Al Pike, and I have really enjoyed that. For me, that is where I feel like I can be a part of the big leagues, so to speak. We have pinhooked some good ones, Vyjack being one of them, and had some nice scores over the last few years.”