News4usonline.com Black History Month Feature
The famous Kentucky Derby wouldn’t be what it is today without the contributions of black jockeys. Horse racing itself wouldn’t be where it is without the services of black men making history when they dominated the sport. And yet acknowledgement of their place in history barley moves the interest scale in the landscape of horse racing.
Their stories have been well documented in books such as “The Great Black Jockeys” and “Black Maestro.” The black jockey experience is as riveting as any athletes-past or present. Black jockeys like Alonzo Clayton, Willie Simms, James “Soup” Perkins, Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield and Isaac Murphy weren’t just good; they were the best.
“Some of these guys have been amazing,” said Ronnie Driestadt, outreach coordinator for the Kentucky Derby Museum.
Two centuries before Jackie Robinson, blacks competed alongside whites in America’s first national pastime. African Americans were the first “professional athletes” through their role as slave jockeys in Thoroughbred racing dating back to 1773 in a great match race. Racing centered in the South where most of the thousands of athletes involved for more than two centuries (from the mid-1600s to the Civil War) were slaves.
Many of the slaves were still in their early teens when their owners put them in a race. Often, the slaves had less value than the horse and were not listed by name in the earliest racing programs. Although some won their freedom in match races, others were lost to the winning owner.
By the end of the 18th Century, the racehorse jockey was considered a legitimate profession, and the skills of the best were much sought after, white or black. A slave by the name of Simon came to South Carolina in 1790 and in his mid-teens was at the top of his profession. His unbeatable skill contributed to his supreme confidence, even arrogance, for which he became legendary.
By his late 20s Simon was in Tennessee developing one of the most colorful rivalries of American sports. Andrew Jackson, the 7th president and father of the Tennessee turf began a feud with Simon that would last four years. Jackson was heard to say,
“Now, Simon, when my horse comes up and is about to pass you, don’t spit your tobacco juice in his eyes, and in the eyes of his rider, as you sometimes do.”
“Well, General,” said Simon aboard a filly named Maria, “I’ve rode a good deal against your horses, but none were ever near enough to catch my spit.”
He was known for this cunning wit and could get away with it because of his tremendous talent and size. “He (Simon) was just exceptional,” Driestadt said. “He was very well known. Jackson’s horses would never beat Simon’s.”
The Kentucky Derby Museum created an exhibit to honor the legends of African Americans in Thoroughbred Racing. This group’s many contributions to the sport supported racing during the last two centuries. Out of 15 starters in the first Derby (1875) 13 were African American jockeys.
Oliver Lewis won aboard Aristides. A dynamic video presentation on the second floor of the Museum traces the roots of these great athletes to the African continent and up through present day. One of the most notable jockeys of all time, Isaac Murphy, rode in the Derby eleven times and won three Derbys in the late 1800s. Known for his integrity and great skill, Murphy rarely used a whip to gain advantage against his opponent. Murphy’s gravestone from 1909 is at the Museum, his remains were moved to the Kentucky Horse Park.
The great African American jockey, Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield, won two consecutive Derbys in 1901 and 1902. At the turn of the century, these years were marked by Jim Crow laws and later gambling prohibitions at racetracks. Few African Americans were granted licenses to ride in the races.
The year 1921 dated the last African American jockey to ride in the Derby when Harry King rode the back of a horse named Planet. Subsequently, African American expertise played a more valuable role as trainers, grooms and hotwalkers. There are many reasons African-American dominance of Thoroughbred racing declined in the early 20th century.
Among these was a readily apparent tension between white jockeys and black jockeys at a few racetracks, most notably Chicago’s Harlem Track. Many of the racetrack owners and trainers were beginning to catch on to the roughness that was directed to African American riders and did not want to put the horses at a disadvantage.
In addition, many African Americans moved to cities to pursue jobs in industry, leaving behind the rural traditions of horsemanship. But the number one reason why black jockeys fell off of the horse racing map was race, said Driestadt.
“The primary reason was racism,” Driestadt said. “As racing became more profitable…that enticed more white jockeys to participate.”
Many racetracks around the country in the early 20th century were shut down due to the efforts of antigambling forces. In 1908, the number of racetracks had fallen from 314 to 25. By the time racing returned at full force in 1913, the African-American presence was, for the most part, gone.
After decades of the black jockey absence from the Derby, Marlon St. Julien ended that futility in 2000 when he rode Curule, a 50-to-1 long shot in the race.
The Kentucky Derby Museum contributed to this report.