African Americans dominated early Kentucky Derby history

04 May

Kevin Krigger, Jockey.  (Youtube video)

This afternoon, the 139th Kentucky Derby will be run in Louisville, Kentucky’s famed Churchill Downs Stables.

Kevin Krigger of the American Virgin Islands will be aboard the second favorite in the race, Goldencents. Krigger will be only the second black jockey in the last 92 years to ride in the Run for the Roses.

The irony here is that although African-American jockeys are now a rarity, indeed many will view Krigger as something of a “first,” the truth is that black jockeys dominated not just the Kentucky Derby but horse racing throughout the country from its beginnings to well after the Civil War.

Louisville’s Churchill Downs opened on May 17, 1875. It was not just a new race track, but the inaugural race of the Kentucky Derby. Just as we will see today, thousands poured into the then new stadium to witness an American sporting event that, by that time, was already epic and the major form of mass entertainment throughout the country.

Jockey Oliver Lewis was aboard the colt Aristides. The fact that he was a black man was not particularly remarkable, since 13 of the other 15 riders were also black. Whatwas different about Lewis is that he urged Aristides on to a still standing record winning time for a three-year-old horse.

Immediately following the Civil War, black jockeys dominated horse racing. Black jockeys were, in fact, the first black sports superstars in this nation-state. Black men won 15 of the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby.

From the beginnings of African slavery in the US, southern plantation owners used black men as riders, groomers and trainers in their horse stables. Many of these black slaves came to gain a certain “horse sense” about their charges – which ones were good at which tasks, particularly winning races (and cash prizes) for their white masters.

After emancipation in 1863, black men continued to dominate the southern horse racing game even as white Irish and other European immigrants predominated in the North.

The 1875 winner Aristides, ridden by a black man, had himself been trained by a former slave renowned for his superb horsemanship, Ansel Williamson. But just like the horses he trained and conditioned, throughout his entire life Williamson was sold from one white owner to the next.

In 1864, R.A. Alexander, proprietor of the famed Woodburn Stud Farm, bought Williamson. Yes, slavery was technically “over,” but as carefully delineated in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, only in those states “still in rebellion.” As a “border state,” Kentucky remained essentially “neutral” through most of the Civil War. Thus slavery remained intact there until the war’s final resolution in 1865.

After freedom finally came, Williamson continued to work for his former master as did an outstanding black jockey named Ed Brown who trained the 1877 Kentucky Derby winner Baden-Baden. Indeed, Brown went on to eventually own and operate his own racing stable.

Unlike Major League Baseball’s strictly enforced color line, black jockeys continued to dominate horse racing for the later quarter of the 19th Century.

None, though, black nor white, ever surpassed Isaac Murphy, who is still considered to be the greatest American jockey in history. He was the scion of a former slave who won an astonishing 44 percent of his races (a feat unheard of and virtually impossible to do even today).

In 1891, Murphy was he first jockey to win successive runnings of the Kentucky Derby and the first rider to win three overall.

Ten years later, Jimmy Winkfield did the back-to-back winning thing while riding Alan-a-Dale to victory in the 1902 Kentucky Derby.

Then, as though an “iron curtin” had suddenly dropped, the black tradition at Churchill Downs ended. Institutional racism had become officially sanctioned and gradually had overtaken the world of horse racing. As white America was still trying to figure out what to do with black people, Jim Crow was placed atop the racial heirarchy after the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877. The US Supreme Court blessed strict racial segregation in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision.

European (mainly Irish) immigrants had long been resentful of black men’s success at horse racing. They began to force blacks off the tracks in the North, in some cases literally. In1900, white jockeys in New York told their trainers and owners not to mount black riders if they expected to win. During races, white riders boxed in black jockeys and rode them into—and often over—the rails. They even used their horse whips against black jockeys during races – a throwback to a then not-so-long-ago form of punishment and chastisement of recalcitrant black people.

Owners came to see that black riders had little chance of winning as long as white riders would not accept them. Even the famed Willie Simms, the only black Triple Crown winning jockey had to beg for a mount.

And so, by 1904, black riders had virtually disappeared from the major racetracks, including, especially, Churchill Downs. No black man rode a horse in the Kentucky Derby between 1921 and 2000, when Marlon St. Julien rode Curule to a seventh-place finish.

Thus, no black man has won the Run for the Roses since Winkfield’s 1902 triumph. Kevin Krigger hopes to break that dubious “record” at today’s 139th Kentucky Derby. Interestingly, Krigger keeps a visible reminder of this proud, though nearly forgotten history, posted in his locker — a picture of Winkfield.



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