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History of Black Jockeys

Jimmy-Winkfield1

From the New York Racing Association’s “History of the Game” 

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day feature at Aqueduct Racetrack is named for one of the all-time great riders, Jimmy Winkfield. The two-time Kentucky Derby winner’s 1902 victory aboard Alan-a-Dale made him the most recent African-American to win the Run for the Roses. His National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame career took him to Russia, France, and Germany. All together, he won over 2,500 races before becoming a successful trainer. 

d7dd8ecd1cf0c55f959b46ca993e3834A brief history of black jockeys in the United States by Teresa Genaro Contributor Writer for Forbes

The sport of horse racing is the only instance where the participation of blacks stopped almost completely while the sport itself continued—a sad commentary on American life…Isaac Murphy, so highly admired during his time for his skills and character, would have been ashamed of his sport.  –Arthur Ashe, quoted by Edward Hotaling in They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga.

Isaac Murphy was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times, and he was the first black jockey to be inducted in the Thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame, in 1955. Oliver Lewis, the winning jockey in the first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, was African-American, one of 13 black jockeys in a 15-horse race that year. Black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derbies.

But at any race track in this country now, you’d have a hard time finding an African-American in the saddle.

In the early days of racing in this country, African-American faces were prominent. Slaves in the south grew up on farms, working in stables, and plantation owners wouldn’t hesitate to put their slaves on their horses’ backs in informal racing in the south. When racing became organized sport in the early 19thcentury, black boys and men were in the vanguard in the saddle, dominating racing until the turn of the century.

But as was the case with so many other segments of American life, racism pushed black jockeys out of the saddle – literally and figuratively – and by the early part of the 20th century, they had virtually disappeared from horses’ backs at America’s biggest racetracks.

Jimmy-Winkfield

From the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame

Jimmy Winkfield was a black jockey who rose to national prominence with his riding skills; he won the Kentucky Derby in 1901 and 1902, the first jockey to win America’s most famous race back to back, and one of only five to ever accomplish that feat. But even he was not immune to the social forces that worked to marginalize African-Americans’ role in racing.

Winkfield got his start in Kentucky, but in 1900, he came to New York to try his hand here, at the nation’s most prestigious tracks.  The experiment didn’t last long.

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