Black in the saddle: The history of African-American jockeys in the Kentucky Derby

theGRIO REPORT - Krigger could become the first black jockey to win the Derby in over a century. One hundred and eleven years is a long time to wait for an African-American winner to return to the scene...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

When the starter’s pistol goes off this Saturday at Churchill Downs for the 139th Kentucky Derby, many eyes will be on jockey Kevin Krigger. If the St. Croix native is the first to cross that finish line, he will be the first black jockey to do so in 111 years, back when Jimmy Winkfield wowed the crowds by winning in 1902.

This might be considered a sad state of affairs, especially when you consider that black jockeys once dominated Derby victories, winning fifteen of the first 28 Derby runs from 1875 to 1902. Today, of the roughly 1,000 jockeys racing on thoroughbreds in the United States, only 50 are black, according to the Jockey Guild.

Horse racing dates back to colonial times when the British brought their passion for the sport to the New World. From the 1600s through the turn of the 20th century, the business was basically dominated by African-Americans. The feeding, grooming, exercising, breaking, and training of horses were the duties of skilled slaves, and when it came time to race the horses, these men were the natural choices to do so. Blacks ruled in this sport of kings in America and also competed abroad, which offered a surreal sense of celebrity and notoriety to members of this class, who suffered under racial oppression when homebound.

Black jockeys dominate racing

When the Civil War ended in1865, these jockeys, who were now free men, were finally able to turn their skills into careers. In May 1875, when the inaugural Kentucky Derby was held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, fourteen of the fifteen jockeys in the race were black. Oliver Lewis, a 19-year-old appropriately from Kentucky, won that first race on the horse Arisitides with a time of 2:37 ¾.

In 1876, William Walker, also from Kentucky, was just 17 when he rode Baden Baden to victory. Walker raced successfully for many years and then worked as a turf correspondent for various sports publications.

Isaac Burns Murphy is considered by many to be one of the greatest riders in American history. Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1861, Murphy was the son of a freedman and a laundress who worked for Richard Owings, of the Owings and Williams Racing Stable. The legendary jockey won the Derby three times in 1884, 1890, and 1891; he is also known to have won 44 percent of all his races.

In 1892, at age fifteen, Kansas City native, Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton became the youngest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. He was one of the highest salaried riders on the east coast and for much of racing history was one of only three black jockeys to compete in the Preakness in Baltimore, where he finished third in 1896.

Willie Simms, who was born in Augusta, Georgia, is the only black jockey to have won all three of the Triple Crown horse racing events. He even raced in England where he became the first American to win on an English course. Simms is also famous for teaching the “short stirrup” style of riding to English racers. In his fourteen-year career, Simms won over 1,100 races.

Racism ends an important American career

The legendary racer Jimmy Winkfield was a jockey with the best winning average in Derby history during his heyday: two victories, one second, and one third in four starts; he was also the last African-American to win the race. But the barbs of racism deeply impacted him, as he faced death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. In 1905 Winkfield left America for Europe. He went on to win prestigious races such as the Prix du President de la Republique, the Moscow Derby, and the Gorsser Priz Von Baden. Winkfield settled in Russia where he was quite a sensation, marrying into an aristocratic family and living a lavish life until the Russian Revolution in 1917.

In 2004, Winkfield was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame, and then in 2005, the New York Racing Association named a race in his honor, which is run every year on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

Despite the success of the black jockeys in this period, it is no surprise that they were not spared the racial discrimination of their era. By the early 1900s, there was a sharp decline in the presence of black trainers and riders at the Derby. The introduction of Jim Crow laws made life in the south unbearable.

Resentment from the white racing community and harassment by white jockeys created an increasingly challenging existence at the tracks.

A race-based shift in the business

Simultaneously, racing was becoming a lucrative business and big money was being made. This made the participation of successful African-American men even more contentious.

“When riding racehorses moved from being just an exciting, dangerous pastime to a potentially lucrative, even prestigious one, black jockeys began to be elbowed to the sidelines,” John Lee of John Lee Media, and former Director of Communication and Media Relations for the New York Racing Association, told theGrio. “Then heading into the 20th Century, as the concept of professional sports grew, African-Americans were continually marginalized as the ‘big leagues’ of all sports — and in most other walks of life — trended all white.”

The migration of blacks from southern farms to northern cities also contributed to a dearth of African-American racing talent. The game had changed.

Black racers make a comeback

The ’50s and ’60s produced black racers such as Ronnie Tanner and George Cordoza. Then James Long took first place at Saratoga Springs in 1974.

Jockey DeShawn Parker was ranked first in the U.S. by wins in 2010 and 2011.

In 2000, Marlon St. Julien ended the drought of African-American participation in the Kentucky Derby when he rode the steed Curule to a seventh-place finish. The last black man to ride in the Derby before that was Henry King in 1921.

As he prepares to race on Saturday, Kevin Krigger, riding his horse Goldcents, could become the first black jockey to win the Derby in over a century.

While 111 years is a long time to wait for an African-American winner to return to the scene, just by racing Krigger takes a prominent place in history as the latest in a long line of historic competitors.

Let’s raise a mint julep to Krigger — and all the great black jockeys of the distant and recent past — for representing this proud tradition. And those who are also interested in owning a horse or even becoming a jockey may need to invest in Horse Stable supplies, horse riding gear and equipment like circle y saddles, as well as hiring a trainer and caretaker for the horse.

Suzanne Rust is a writer, lifestyle expert, on-air talent, and a native New Yorker. Follow her on Twitter at @SuzanneRust.