The tears in the eyes of jockey Kendrick Carmouche told the story of the $250,000 Cigar Mile Handicap on a day of firsts and lasts in New York.
It was a poignant tale of a 36-year-old jockey winning his first Grade 1 stakes aboard a durable 6-year-old horse in Calumet Farm's True Timber, whose 29-race career had been dotted with placings in graded stakes before he finally collected his initial stakes win of any kind on a cold, wet Dec. 5 afternoon at Aqueduct.
"This is such a joy," Carmouche said as the tears welled. "It made my day. It made my year. (2020) has been a struggle, but as long as God gives us faith and keeps us strong and healthy we can fight through it."
That fight resulted in guiding True Timber to an easy 5 ¼-length victory in the final graded stakes of the year in New York and gave Carmouche the exhilarating thrill of being part of a winner's circle celebration after a Grade 1 stakes for the first time in a career that has featured more than 20,000 mounts, 3,300 wins, and earnings of $113.1 million.
"I owe it all to my fans, my wife, my kids and everybody for how they stuck with me and kept pushing me to keep fighting in the game," said Carmouche, one of the sport's few African-American riders who owns seven riding titles at Parx Racing. "This means so much to me. It's the biggest win of my career and I hope I have many more blessed ones and a safe journey throughout my career."
For the resilient True Timber, the Cigar Mile brought an end to a mark of 0-for-19 in stakes company, which started with original trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and continued with Jack Sisterson this summer after McLaughlin became the agent for jockey Luis Saez.
Aside from the goose egg in stakes company, Saturday also ended an overall losing streak of 13 straight races dating back to 2018.
"I got to give credit to True Timber, the farm, the incredible staff I have, and of course, Kendrick," Sisterson said. "I had all the confidence in the world when Kendrick texted me, 'I got you brother, don't worry', with a little peace sign."
Yet in all those stakes appearances, there were four seconds and six thirds, including the two finishes that were most important Saturday: a third in last year's Cigar Mile and a second in the 2018 edition.
"As soon as I got the horse, the Cigar Mile was a year-end goal," Sisterson said.
Sisterson pre-entered True Timber in the Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile but the bay horse was not included in the main body of the race and wound up running that same day and getting a second in the seven-furlong Lafayette Stakes.
That late-running second in the Nov. 7 Keeneland stakes had True Timber on edge for another big effort in the 32nd Cigar Mile, which offered proof that the third time can indeed be a charm.
"I think everything works out for a reason," Sisterson said.
True Timber was third in the early stages of the Cigar Mile, sitting two lengths behind the dueling King Guillermo, a 3-year-old coming off a seven-month layoff, and the 6-year-old New York-bred gelding Mr. Buff after a half-mile in :45.82 over a sloppy, sealed track.
Midway on the turn, True Timber swooped past the tiring leaders and was a length in front at the quarter pole. It was no contest in the stretch as 7.30-1 True Timber emphatically drew off to win in 1:36.49 while well behind him Snapper Sinclair edged odds-on favorite Performer for the place spot.
Adding to Carmouche's euphoria, the victory gave the Louisiana-born rider a four-win lead for the Fall riding title at Aqueduct as he heads into the Dec. 6 finale on the verge of securing his initial crown at a New York Racing Association meet after moving to the circuit on a year-round basis in 2015.
"Hard work and perseverance. You have to stay in the game and be ready for opportunity when opportunity comes," he said. "This is the point I'm at in my career right now, I'm ready for any opportunity and this is why I think things are going in the right direction. They're giving me good horses to ride and I think it's going to open up eyes for other trainers and other owners that I can do the same thing, if not better, than those other guys."
True Timber improved his record to 29-5-5-9 with earnings of $1,215,150.