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

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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.