Few people know about the Black history of horse racing. It is a rich history, a history which would have continued to bring success to the individual players and made the sport even more spectacular.
But racism, that special vice of America, reared its ugly head and scuppered the forward march of horse racing. Thirteen of the 15 jockeys of the first Kentucky Derby were Black men.
The first Kentucky Derby race occurred in 1875, making it the oldest continuously run sporting event in America. Black jockeys were black America’s first sports stars, winning 15 of the first 28 races of the Derby.
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Black jockeys also dominated the sports for the first 30 years with Oliver Lewis being the first winner of the Kentucky Derby. The three-year-old thoroughbred he rode also recorded the fastest time for a horse that size.
The enslaved mastered the art of catering for the horses during the slavery period as their masters forced them to serve as riders, groomers, and trainers of the horses. With the time spent attending to the horses, the Blacks had a superior connection with the beasts compared to the whites.
Black jockeys dominated horse racing in the emancipation period. They dominated the south whiles the whites dominated the north.
William Walker won the 1877 Derby riding the horse Baden-Baden trained by Edward D. Brown. Brown will go on to own his own stable for horses.
Isaac Murphy is regarded as the greatest jockey in American thoroughbred horse racing of his era. He was one of the most populous winning 1/3 of the races he entered. He is the first rider to win back-to-back Kentucky derbies. Murphy won three Kentucky Derbies in total.
The horse Murphy rode was owned by a former slave, Dudley Allen, who is the only Black man to own a winning Kentucky Derby horse.
Jimmy Winkfield also won back-to-back Kentucky derbies. In 1902, he became the second man to achieve the feat. When the Jim Crow era forced black jockeys from America, he found success in Russia, Poland and Germany, ending his racing career with 2,600 points.
Systemic and unequal segregation gave the whites the impetus to force the Blacks off the tracks. By 1910, the whites banded to sabotage the Blacks. They boxed in the Black jockeys which caused accidents and made the jockeys slam into railings and other horses. The white jockeys further beat the Black jockeys causing serious injuries as well as deaths.
The white authorities, however, turned a blind eye to the situation. Willie Simms is the only jockey to win the Triple Crown. The thoroughbred racing and U.S. Racing Hall of Fame inductee won five of the races that would become the U.S. Triple Crown series.
1904 is, however, viewed as the year Black jockeys were unofficially banned from horse racing. The ban became effective when no black jockey raced from 1921 till the year 2000 when Marlon St. Julien participated in the Kentucky Derby after nearly 80 years, placing seventh.
In Europe, some of the backlisted Black jockeys found success whiles others did not. The Black jockeys earned significant sums from racing till they were kicked out of the sport they helped make popular.
The jockeys faced severe hardships as they could not earn a living. While some survived, others fell on hard times and died on the sword of American racism.