Black jockeys and American horse racing


Jae Jones, writing for BLACK THEN, tells us:

“Oliver Lewis became the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, America’s longest continuous sporting event, on May 17, 1875. His time of 2 minutes, 37.75 seconds also set an American record over the mile and a half distance (the Kentucky Derby became a 1.25 mile race in 1896).

“Born in 1856 in Fayette County, Kentucky, to Goodson and Eleanor Lewis very little is known about Lewis’ early life.

“In 1875, at the age of 19, he entered the inaugural Kentucky Derby by riding Aristide, a colt owned by H. Price McGrath and trained by Ansel Williamson, who was also black. This race was held on May 17 at the newly-opened Louisville Jockey Club race track.

“Lewis’ mount Aristides was one of two horses entered in the [15 horse] race by owner H. Price McGrath in hopes of netting the $2850 prize money. However, it was the other horse—Chesapeake, ridden by William Henry—that was expected to win. Lewis’s role in the race was to force the pace so that Chesapeake could take the lead when the rest of the field tired.”

He had other ideas. Lewis won the race in front of 10,000 spectators by two lengths ahead of Volcano. There’s more.

“Lewis’ career as a jockey did not last long. After a spell working as a day laborer, Lewis began providing notes on racing form to bookmakers and later became a bookmaker himself, a profession that was legal in the United States during that time. Lewis’s methods of collecting data and compiling detailed handicapping charts have been likened to the systems used by the Daily Racing Form.”

Learn about those early days of American horse racing in the excellent THE HIDDEN BLACK HISTORY OF HORSE RACING from On the Shoulders of Giants. It’s a very interesting read. Here are a few excerpts:

“Did you know that thirteen of the fifteen jockeys in the first Kentucky Derby were black men? Black horse jockeys were black America’s first sports stars, winning fifteen of the first twenty-eight Kentucky Derby’s. Black jockeys would dominate the sport for its first thirty years.”

“Blacks learned to master horses and horse racing through the time they spent caring for horses during slavery. Slave masters forced blacks to serve as the riders, groomers and trainers of their horses. Because of the amount of time blacks spent with the horses, black riders had a superior connection with the horses compared to the white riders and trainers.”

“Black jockeys dominated horse racing in the South through the Emancipation period while white jockeys dominated horse racing in the North.”

“Black jockey Jimmy Winkfield won back to back Kentucky Derby’s in 1902 becoming the second rider to do so. Winkfield was a very successful jockey in America and abroad, the Jim Crow era forced black jockeys from the race tracks so Winkfield raced in Russia, Poland and Germany ending his racing career with 2,600 wins.”

“The black presence at the Kentucky Derby came to an end because of systematic racism which was allowed at Church Hill Downs. The rise of unequal segregation and Jim Crow gave whites the gumption to literally force black jockeys off of the race track. In 1900, the white jockeys band together to sabotage black riders and keep them off of the tracks. White jockeys would often force black riders to have accidents by literally boxing them in and forcing them to crash into other horses or the rails. They would beat the black jockeys with their whips during the race causing them to fall off of their horses; black jockeys would become critically injured or even killed because of the actions of the white jockeys. The white race officials often turned a blind eye to the terrorism the white jockeys were inflicting upon the black jockeys.”

“Willie Simms is the only black jockey to win the Triple Crown, but even he couldn’t race because of the systematic racism. 1904 is said to be the year that black jockeys were unofficially banned from horse racing; information shows that the banning was significant because no black jockey participated in horse racing from 1921 until the year 2000. In the year 2000 jockey Marlon St. Julien was the first black to race in over seventy years and earned a seventh place finish.”


RELATED READING (plus video)

African-American Jockeys, (public television)

QUOTE: Fifteen of the first 28 Kentucky Derbys were won by African-American jockeys. They dominated the early years of Thoroughbred racing in the United States—and they were widely regarded as the best in the world.

Updated: 2/3/21 3:13 pm

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Featured Image: Oliver Lewis.


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