Black in the saddle: The history of African-American jockeys in the Kentucky Derby
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.
Suzanne Rust is a writer, lifestyle expert, on-air talent, and a native New Yorker. Follow her on Twitter at @SuzanneRust.