History bears out the strong African-American presence in the Kentucky Derby races until the white invasion which spelled doom for the black jockeys. Of the black greats who won the Derby, Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton is the youngest, winning the 1892 Kentucky Derby aged a mere fifteen years.
Of his exploits, author Edward Hotaling described Clayton as “one of the great riders of the New York circuit all through the 1890s.”
Born to Robert and Evaline Clayton in Kansas City, Missouri in 1876, Clayton moved from home by twelve, to join his brother, Alburtus, who was a jockey in Chicago. He had worked as a hotel errand boy and shoeshiner helping his parents.
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Horse owner Lucky Baldwin hired Clayton as an exercise rider to keep his horses fit. By 1890, Clayton was on the move, this time to New Jersey, where he started his professional jockey career as a fourteen-year-old.
Showing a knack for the sports, Clayton won the Champaign Stakes at Morris Racetrack Park in the Bronx aboard Kentucky bred Azra in 1891. A year later, Clayton and Azra won the 1892 Kentucky Derby setting a record – the youngest jockey to ever win the race. Clayton and Azra also captured the purse at the Clark Handicap (1892, 1897), and the Travers Stakes (1892).
“Clayton went on to win many races through the 1890s. He won the 1893 Monmouth Handicap, the Kentucky Oaks in 1894 and 1895, and the Arkansas Derby in 1895. He won 144 races in 1895, and finished third in the Preakness Stakes in 1896,” according to a report.
On the back of his successes, Clayton built the Engelberger House in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1895 but had to sell it when he fell on hard times. The house is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
After losing an 1898 horse race in the Bronx, New York, Clayton heard an insult from the crowd along the rail and struck a white spectator from Brooklyn across the face with his riding whip.
“The blow resulted in a two hundred dollar fine by the track stewards, but ultimately led to a civil trial, a financial judgment against Clayton that he ignored, and then an arrest and incarceration for non-payment of the judgment, which some writers mistakenly still claim was for race-fixing,” said John A. Drobnicki, a professor and reference librarian at York College of The City University of New York.
With the recruitment of more white jockeys, the blacks had to find their livelihood elsewhere. Clayton moved around the west as well as Vancouver, Canada.
Eventually, he worked as a bellhop in California, dying from chronic pulmonary tuberculosis on March 17, 1917. He is buried at the Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.