Craig Perret – Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame
Craig Perret knew it by the time he was 5-years old.
All those days of waking up at 4:30 in the morning and heading to the barn with his dad and walking and feeding the horses instilled the passion in him at an early age.
Yeah, he dabbled around with a little football and baseball as a kid and was pretty good at those sports too.
“But I knew the love was horses,” Perret said. “There was no question about that. Even today, if I could choose any career it would be going in a barn with horses. I didn’t mind sleeping in a stall. It was all beautiful. It was my passion. That’s what I was good at.”
Indeed he was.
His success as a jockey took him from the starting gate – his childhood home in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans – to the finish line at the most prestigious races in horse racing.
It’s why Perret, 69, will be inducted into the Allstate Sugar Bowl Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame in the 2020 class.
“When you’re getting inducted with people from other sports professions, it’s special,” Perret said. “I’ll be the only little, bitty short guy up there. I’ll be looking up to them and saying “damn, how did they stack me up with them. But this is special because New Orleans is home.”
The 5-foot-1 Perret won 4,415 races in a career that lasted from 1967-2005. Included in those victories were wins at the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. He calls Kentucky home now. But he still has family in New Orleans where his horse racing journey began.
He was riding quarter horses at the age of 7. He’d compete at picnics every Sunday in what they called match races, just one-on-one horse races in an open field.
“Everybody would be just sitting around watching and eating crawfish and drinking beer and having a good time,” Perret said.
But he didn’t get to start racing in actual races on the track until he was 16.
“I was ready to ride and could handle a horse real good at 14 years old,” Perret said. “So I was biding time and just waiting.”
And once he rode in his first race?
“It felt like a dream,” Perret said. “It was something I couldn’t even comprehend. It just felt like I was floating on air.”
But that wasn’t the best feeling he’s had on a track. The best, he admits, is whenever he got a chance to race at Churchill Downs.
“The Kentucky Derby will always be the one,” Perret said. “I don’t care if you win 28 million races. When you win the Derby, it’s different. You’re on the highest stage you’ll ever be on. But it’s not just about winning. It’s everything. When they play ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ and you see the 130,000 fans, there’s nothing like it. Ain’t nothing like it.”
Craig Perret rides Unbridled to victory in the 1990 Kentucky Derby. Photo by Ken Levine/Getty Images.
Perret won the Kentucky Derby in 1990 riding Unbridled.
“As soon as I hit the wire, my mind just went so many different ways,” Perret said. “The first person I thought about was my grandmother. I said, ‘I hope you stayed alive to see it.’ She was sick, but she got to see it. When you win that race, you don’t think about what you did. You think about all the joy you brought people. It’s hard to explain.”
Three years before that, he rode Bet Twice to win the Belmont Stakes, denying Alysheba’s bid at winning the Triple Crown. Bet Twice had barely lost to Alysheba in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
“When we got to Belmont we decided to change things around and we executed and it looked brilliant,” Perret said.
He also won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (1984, 1990), Travers Stakes and Queen’s Plate in Canada twice.
While he is quick to give credit to everyone he worked with over the years, it’s his father who he credits most. George Perret, an ex-boxer, is who sparked the interest.
“He was my rock,” Perret said. “He was my dad. But he was my buddy.”
Perret is just the second jockey to be inducted into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame. Ray Broussard, inducted in 1983, is the other. Jack Defee, who served as chairman of the Louisiana State Racing Commission and president of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, is the only other person in the Hall of Fame affiliated with horse racing. This will be the latest Hall of Fame for Perret, also a member of the Fair Grounds Racing Hall of Fame (1994), Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame (2006) and the National Museum of Racing (2019).
Perret remains humble about his latest accolade.
“I say God just gave me wings and He got angels around me,” Perret said. “Was I that good? Hell no. It takes years to get to that. But I had the trust of the people I dealt with. There are a lot of guys it didn’t happen for and they were good but they just didn’t get the same opportunities I did. Do I pinch myself? No, I just think I was very blessed. You don’t plan it. You just work and you work and you work and it takes you there. The Derby is the goal. The rest of this is like a little whipped cream on the side. The cherry and all.”
Story by Rod Walker of the Greater New Orleans Sports Awards Committee.