In today’s Kentucky Derby, jockey Kevin Krigger will have a chance to become the first African-American jockey to win the Derby since 1902. African-American jockeys were dominant in the Derby’s formative years. Most of the jockeys in the first Derby were black, including the winner.
One of the most legendary African-American jockeys was Isaac Murphy. Murphy rode to victory in three Kentucky Derby races and is considered one of the best jockeys of all time. Murphy is the subject of a collection of poems by Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X. Walker.
Walker says he’ll be betting on Krigger and his horse, Goldencents, in the Derby. “Of course I hope he wins. He’s a damn good jockey aboard a really good horse,” he says.
“The thing that’s amazing to me is how many people keep forwarding me news clips and videos,” says Walker. “At least 20 people have sent me clips of his interviews or his stories, and I think it’s their knowledge of my connection to Isaac Murphy as a researcher and poet that they want to share this information. Because of that it’s very exciting.”
And Walker says Krigger’s presence in the race has led to a renewed interest in African-Americans’ contributions to horse racing.
“By participating and drawing attention to the fact that horse racing, particularly the Kentucky Derby, has a history you don’t see when you watch what passes as contemporary Kentucky Derby. Most people are shocked the first Kentucky Derby had 15 African-American riders. And the first thought is, ‘If that was the case, what happened?’”
Maryjean Wall, who teaches at the University of Kentucky and who was a longtime horse racing writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader, says there are a lot of reasons for the decline of African-American jockeys. The rise of segregation, Jim Crow and the fear of having white women cheering for black riders at southern racetracks all contributed. As did the migration of African-Americans out of rural areas and into cities. Krigger is from the U.S. Virgin Islands. Wall says if he wins, it’ll certainly build awareness of Derby history, but it won’t likely lead to a rise in African-American jockeys.
“Not a lot of African-Americans seem interested in pursuing a career as a jockey anymore,” she says, pondering whether it’s because so many African-Americans now grow up in cities or because horse racing doesn’t carry the national popularity it once did.
“Kevin comes from outside the continental United States, we have more interest in jockeys of all races,” she adds.