Curious Louisville

Did you know that 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derby winners were ridden by black jockeys? At the dawn of the Derby, black jockeys dominated the sport. In the very first Derby, only one rider was white. But the last time a black jockey won the Derby was in 1902, when Jimmy Winkfield crossed the finish line on Alan-a-Dale.

So what happened? How did African-American jockeys go from the majority to rarely heard of?

That’s what Veda Pendleton wanted to know. She asked Curious Louisville:

The first winning jockeys of the Kentucky Derby were African-American men. What happened to opportunities for African-Americans as jockeys? What happened to change who the riders are?

Great minds think alike; my former colleague Ja’Nel Johnson and I did a story about this a few years ago. Our reporting took us out to the track and through a leisurely lunch chat with Shirley Mae Beard, owner of Shirley Mae’s Café in Smoketown. You really have to hear her voice, so you can listen to that story in the player above.

But I’ll recap here, for Veda.

It turns out, the decline of black jockeys in the Derby and the rest of thoroughbred racing is tied to the larger history of race and economics in the U.S.

The early dominance of black jockeys was a result of Antebellum customs. We talked to Teresa Genaro, freelance turf writer and founder of Brooklyn Backstretch, who said enslaved people were often the caretakers of horses on plantations.

“What happened was that you had generation after generation of young black men who grew up around horses, and grew up riding horses,” Genaro said.

Decades after the end of slavery, black jockeys remained prominent in racing. Some became fairly famous, like Isaac Burns Murphy and James “Jimmy” Winkfield.

But the economic aftermath of the Civil War in the South, and the abolition of slavery, changed the lives of black jockeys.

“All the sudden you have generations of black horsemen who had never known slavery. They were independent autonomous people, and white people began to feel really threatened by that,” Genaro said.

Kentucky Derby Museum curator Chris Goodlett said some white jockeys physically threatened their African-American colleagues — even on the track.

Jimmy Winkfield, in particular, experienced episodes of physical intimidation while racing.

“You had instances of jockeys, white jockeys, kind of ganging up on him during the race, riding him close to the rail — which could hurt him, could hurt the horse,” Goodlett said.

The tactics affected the jockey’s career opportunities.

“As far as trainers and owners are concerned, if other riders are ganging up on their jockeys, they don’t necessarily want to ride that jockey,” he said.

The world outside of racing was also changing. Jim Crow laws in the South prompted many black Americans to migrate north, where they were more likely to find work in factories than on farms. Knowledge of horses was lost as new generations grew up in cities.

Teresa Genaro said it’s unlikely we’ll see a return of African-Americans to horse racing.

“If you look at a lot of the families in racing now, they’ve been in racing for generations, and they’ve passed down the love of the horse, and of horse racing, from generation to generation,” she said.

“Where that would start with a new generation of people of color, I think is the big question,” Genaro said.

The answer seems to be in Latin America. In the 1960s, jockeys from Latin American countries started to emerge as top riders.

In this year’s Kentucky Derby, 17 jockeys have been announced so far. Four are from the United States, three are European, and 10 are from Latin America.

This story is part of our Curious Derby series, from the producers of Curious Louisville. You can ask your question about anything related to our city and the surrounding areas, and we might answer it in the future! Type your question in the form below, or visit curiouslouisville.org.

Laura produces Recut, Curious Louisville, and other audio news stories and podcasts for WFPL.