Black jockeys and the Kentucky Derby: A history of race and racism

How Black jockeys dealt with racism, segregation on and off the racetrack

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Churchill Downs’ history is filled with the sound of horses galloping around the track during the Kentucky Derby.

The black jockeys that once rode those horses and dominated the sport of horse racing have faded into the pages of history.

On May 17, 1875, just a decade after the Civil War ended, 15 jockeys raced around Churchill Downs’ track during the inaugural Kentucky Derby. Thirteen of those 15 riders were black.

“The winning jockey aboard Aristides, Oliver Lewis, was also an African American,” Chris Goodlett, the Kentucky Derby Museum’s Director of Curatorial and Education Affairs, explained. “Fifteen of the first 28 runnings of the Derby, African American jockeys won those races.”

American slavery led to generations of black men growing up around horses and horse riding.

“The south was a plantation economy, and those plantations were largely run by African Americans,” Goodlett said. “They were taking care of the horses, they were training horses, and caring for the horses. They were riding the horses. So all of that kinda flows together as to how the African-American connection to those horses in what would be the United States of America actually started.”

Decades after Abraham Lincoln emancipated slaves across the country, blacks still dominated the sport.

“Isaac Murphy is a jockey that people talk about quite often. He’s regarded by many in the industry as the greatest jockey that ever lived,” Goodlett revealed. Murphy was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times. Murphy was also the first jockey inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.

As racism became more prevalent in the form of Jim Crow laws and segregation, black jockeys were not held in high regard. While prejudice reared its head initially as jockeys being denied licenses, eventually, the racism in racing became physical, according to Goodlett. “As racing becomes more codified more of a business, there were some intentional methods on behalf of those in charge of racing to not license African American jockeys, or give fewer jockeys license to African American jockeys.”

“Probably late 19th century or early 20th century, Jimmy Winkfield, the most recent African American jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, was riding in Harlam Racecourse outside of Chicago. And his white counterparts really tried to run him and his horse up against the rail; what they kinda call rough riding. Which can cause injury to the jockey, it could cause injury to the horse.”

By 1904, black riders were banned from many racetracks across the country, including Churchill Downs.

Jimmy Winkfield was one of the last black jockeys to ride in the Derby. In fact, he won back to back Kentucky Derby runs on Alan-a-Dale in 1901 and His Eminence in 1902.

“He actually left the country in the early 1900s due to a lot of the Jim Crow and segregation that we discussed. He had a prominent career in Russia. But then you have the Bolshevik Revolution and communism, and then he goes to France,” Goodlett explained.

From 1921 to 2000, there were no African American riders in the Kentucky Derby.

Marlon St. Julien became the first black jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby in 79 years. Kevin Krigger made a run for the roses in 2013.

While black jockeys are no longer a mainstay, black Americans are still making an impact on the sport of horse racing.

“These are the silks of Oaktown Stable. Oaktown Stable was owned by the Burrell family,” Goodlett said. “One of them was Stanley Burrell, better known to us in Gen X as MC Hammer.”

For the first time in 13 years, an African-American owner has a horse running in the Kentucky Derby. Greg Harbut’s horse, Necker Island, has already won two races at Churchill Downs. Harbut’s great-grandfather groomed 1953 Derby Winner Dark Star for cosmetic mogul Elizabeth Arden and also owned a horse that raced in the 1962 Derby.

The Kentucky Derby Museum hopes that learning about this part of history may light a spark in our next generation of jockeys.

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