Kentucky Derby's history ignores black jockeys

Kentucky Derby and the civil war –black jockeys were real winners

 The Kentucky Derby ix run this Saturday, May 1, 2010 and even with the prediction of  possibly heavy rains,  hundreds of thousands of folks, rich and not-so-rich, young and old, will crowd the stands and fill the boxes for the greatest two  minutes of sports.

They will also tear up, many of them, as they stand and sing the familiar “My Old Kentucky Home,”  whether they sing the original words they grew up with, or the sanitized version decreed by today’s political correctness. The tears will be the same.

 Somewhere after the beautiful hats and dresses, and the celebrities present, we get to the equally magnificent horses who will race around the mile and a quarter track, and after the horses, people sometimes stop to think about their riders – the great racing jockeys.

 Horse racing has been going on for some 400 years, and the jockeys in most of the early years were not white or Hispanic, but black.  This will be the 136th Kentucky Derby, and as in the past 100 years or so, few jockeys, if any, will be black.  And that is a shame. In point of fact, unless  you are a true  devotee of horse racing,  you probably can’t name a single black jockey.

 The first Derby was in 1875, 10 years after  the civil war, but the presence of black jockeys had been well known long before that.  Many were slave jockeys, and their high standing gave them the freedom to move between states following races at a time when that privilege was not readily granted. Most were grooms and trainers for their owners’ horses, as well as the riders.

 Early on, the two men in America who were known as the finest ever to sit a horse were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, though there is no record of either actually taking part in a race.  Going on into Colonial days, black jockeys such as Curtis Austin and one known only as Simon were leading riders.  Race horses were  raised from  Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Kentucky, all the way to Louisiana. Black jockeys, a they were termed then, rode the majority of the horses.

 Even the civil war did not put a halt to the outstanding activities of black jockeys, some six or seven months after the war’s beginning, slaves were still riding horses in the Old South. Some 15 of the first 28 Derby winners were ridden by black jockeys. Contrary to popular opinion, baseball player Jackie Robinson was not solely responsible for integrating major sports.  That  honor goes to the black jockeys, who worked and rode hard, and occasionally getting recompensed  for it, regularly riding alongside white jockeys as well.

 My personal favorite among the black jockeys is Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield, only the second rider ( behind Isaac “Ike” Murphy ) to ride back to back Kentucky Derby winners.  The first  horse on which he won the Derby was His Eminence in 1901, owned and trained by a man named Frank B. VanMeter who happened to be my great uncle. Jimmy won his first Derby at the age of 17,  and after his win on Alan-a-Dale the next year, the rule of Jim Crow had arrived in earnest. Talk of the KKK, of threats, and of the need to replace black jockeys was everywhere.  He would ride no more in Kentucky or in the United States, but his fame would end up even greater.

 He packed his bags and left for Europe where he was a highly successful rider all over the continent, including Russia, Germany, Austria, France, Italy and Spain.  He became wealthy, married happily, and lived to a ripe old age.  He has a daughter living  in the midwest even today, who works to keep his name alive.

 Yet in  1961 when he returned to his native Kentucky to accept the National Turf Writers Award at the prestigious Brown Hotel in Louisville,  he was at first denied admission unless he went around to the rear door.  At 79, he waited patiently until his people could straighten the situation out, and then received his award and watched the Derby the next day.  He then left to return to France, where he died at 91.

 He  was the last black jockey to win the Derby, and there  has been only one black jockey to participate in the Derby since that time.

 Edward Hotaling has an excellent book entitled “The Great Black Jockeys – The Lives and Times of the Men Who Dominated America’s First National Sport”,  and  Joe Drape has written one on Jimmy Winkfield entitled “Black Maestro.”  Both are well worth reading and adding to any horse or Derby lover’s library.

 It may be raining Saturday at Churchill Downs, but all eyes will be on the twin spires that day, and on the legacy left largely untold: that of the original black jockeys who helped to make the sport what  it is today.

 Stop on Saturday and drink a mint julep toast to all the black jockeys of the past, who deserve far more recognition than they have ever received.

Riders up!

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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