Once Black Jockeys Ruled the Tracks

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J. Winkfield Two Time Kentucky Derby Winner riding Alan a Dale

Then they Disappeared: What Happened?

Everything that comes with the Derby right now for me is not the same as the majority of the other riders, or any other riders, because I’m the only African-American rider in the race,”

Kevin Krigger

The rise to prominence of this young black Jockey, Kevin Krigger, mounted on Goldencents in today’s Kentucky Derby strikes most contemporary racing fans as a strange unprecedented phenomenon. This is but further evidence of American’s ignorance of their history.  And more often than not when the issue involves the shameful racist history of white Americans the official mythmakers, as well as average white citizens, prefers to forget it, bury it under a pile of empty self-serving mythology about all people being equal in “the land of the free.”

Some southern states, which have the worst records on race relation, are even attempting to remove all references to white America’s bloody oppression of Afro-Americans.  Hence the tawdry racist history of thoroughbred racing is best left in obscurity to these people.  But the history of black jockeys is far to fascinating a story to lie in obscurity; for while they are extremely rare today they once dominated the sport.

In his his reveries about Afro-American life in New York City, Black Manhattan, James Weldon Johnson recalls that when he first came to New York in the 1890’s, among the wealthiest and most famous black men were prizefighters and jockeys.  Indeed, in this period black Jockeys dominated in thoroughbred racing.  This is because in the US horse racing began during slavery, a time when black men handled the care and training of horses on the plantation.

It is even said that some of the Africans were skilled horsemen before they enslaved in America.  This is not at all hard to believe because there were Hausa and Fulani’s among the slave population and they were great horsemen.

Fulani Horsemen of Nigeria

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The source of America’s first great Jockeys?
 Hausa Horsemen in Nigeria

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 Riding in battle formation

Whatever their source, black Jockey’s dominated thoroughbred racing in the US during its early days.  Before professional racing there were races between plantation owners, and even races down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital, and the Jockeys were generally African American slaves.  Already an established sport in England, it would become a major American sport with million dollar prizes.

Today is the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, the jewel in the crown of professional horse racing in the US, an event on which black jockeys were once kings.  They were once so ubiquitous little statues of black jockeys were cast for people to place in their yards…thus the famous “lawn Jockeys” that we still see holding street lights or address signs on the lawns of white America.  Like the Tango in Argentina, they are the only evidence that black jockeys ever existed, although as with the Tango nobody connects them with real black people.

Owners of greatest horses from around the world would like to run their magnificent beasts in this race, but only the cream of the crop among three year olds will be permitted to compete.  Hence the choice of jockeys is critical.  And those choices are made by owners and trainers in a very closed process. It is a process where black riders must struggle to be recognized.  In fact the very idea of a black professional jockey strikes many people as an oxymoron.

However when Churchill Downs opened for business with its inaugural race on May 17, 1875 the elegantly attired crowd of men in waistcoats and high hats, and the ladies in fine frocks and spectacular head pieces were not at all surprised that the winning jockey,  Oliver Lewis, mounted atop a chestnut colt, was black.  In fact, they probably discussed everything about the Derby winner except the race of the rider, since 13 of the 15 jockeys competing in the great race were black!

First Derby Winner Oliver Lewis

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He set the standard!

Isaac Murphy

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Three time Kentucky Derby winner!

 Lewis won by a length and set the fastest time that has ever been run by a three year old horse.  He set a standard of excellence on the race tracks that was expanded upon by other black jockeys to enter the tracks, and they dominated thoroughbred racing in the US for the next thirty years.  Afro-American Jockeys won the first Eight Kentucky Derbys, and fifteen of the first twenty eight.

For instance during the  1890’s Isaac Murphy won the derby three times, a feat that only four other Jockeys have managed to duplicate in the history of American thoroughbred racing.   Isaac Murphy also has the all-time record in percentage of races won.  These achievements on the track have convinced some racing experts to conclude that Ike was the best ever.  The son of former slaves Murphy was born and raised in Kentucky, where many of the horse trainers were black – just as was the case with horse handlers when I was a boy in Florida.  Hence black jockeys had plenty of clout in Murphy’s day…unlike today when Kevin Krigger had to literally beg white trainers and owners to give him a chance to mount up.   The last black superstar on the tracks was Jimmy Winkfield, who won back to back Kentucky Derby’s in 1901 and 1902.

Resentful of having to compete with blacks for purses, and often losing, white jockeys followed the example of the trade unions affiliated with the recently formed American Federation of Labor and formed an all-white jockey’s union and barred blacks from riding in professional races. If the great black jockey’s wanted to continue participating in the sport they loved they had to accept jobs as mere grooms, curry combing horses for white boys who were often their inferiors to mount.  If they were lucky they could become trainers or exercise riders.

Since their exclusion from the tracks mirrored what was happening to Afro-Americans in all areas of American society since the Supreme court legalized racial segregation and discrimination in employment in the Plessey v Ferguson Decision of 1896, some black jockey’s accepted their fate, while others left the US to race on foreign tracks.  After winning back to back Derby’s in 1902 and 03, Winkfield came in second in 1904.

As racial hostilities intensified in his native Kentucky Winkfield came to New York to race.  And while there were owners and trainers willing to give him a mount, the white jockey’s banded together to drive him from the track by boxing him in driving him into the rail, kicked his shins and ankles as they rode beside him and repeatedly hit him with riding crops.  And they warned owners that they would not allow a black jockey to win major purses.

Facing such formidable odds Winkfield gave it all up in his first season and shipped out for Russia, where he became a superstar, riding horses for Russian nobility,  earning over $100,000, and hanging out with habitués at the court of Czar Nicholas Romanoff II.  He learned to speak Russian, dressed in high style, and was the toast of the town.  He was having a ball…until the Bolshevik revolution ended it all and he was forced to flee in a daring ride with 200 of Russia’s finest thoroughbred horses across several countries before reaching their destination. He would go on to distinguish himself on tracks all over Europe.

When he was invited back to Louisville during the run for the roses at the 1961 Kentucky Derby, along with his daughter who became a horse doctor, he was almost denied admission to the ceremony because most of the ignorant racist in attendance didn’t even know who he was!  So much for life in the “land of the free.” The young black jockey competing in the Derby today, Kevin Krigger, is well aware of this history and he has sought out Winkfield’s daughter who is now 88 years old.  And he has promised to win the Derby in honor of her father.

Jimmy Winkfield
130503172938-jimmy-winkfield-story-top Sitting atop his mount after winning the 1901 Derby
Jimmy Winkfield and Superstar Bing Crosby at the Derby
 Winkfield and Bing Crosby
His racing days done, Jim is sharap as a tack at the track

Born and raised in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, where he learned to ride, Kevin was surprised at the racism directed at him by his fellow jockeys on US tracks – both white and Hispanic.  But it’s a different day and if they tried some of the tactics employed a hundred years ago they would be suspended and Kevin might well  break his foot off in their ass to boot!  Krigger has ridden “Goldencents’ to victory in the Santa Anita Derby – the first black jockey to win it in the 78 year history of the event – and today he is going for the win at the Kentucky Derby.  In fact, with a Muhammad Ali like swagger…he has promised not to just run for the roses but to win them.  I say God speed to you young brother!!!

Kevin Krigger in Action!

Kevin Krigger

 Winning the Santa Anita Derby on Goldencents

 

Stylish Afro-Americans at the Derby

Lynn Whitfield at the Kentucky Derby

The beautiful Lynn whitfield

His Airness!

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Mike chillin at the track

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York 
May 4, 2013
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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