Each year, along with hat shopping, forecast watching, and amateur handicapping, the Kentucky Derby brings with it a sense of the state’s rich history. But whose history is it?
Today’s thoroughbreds are piloted around the racetrack by jockeys who are mostly white and Latino. But in the early days of racing, black jockeys dominated.
In fact, in the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875, only one rider was white. That race was won by Aristides, ridden by Oliver Lewis.
But the decline of black jockeys in the Derby and the rest of thoroughbred racing is intricately tied to the history of race and economics in the U.S., experts said.
The early dominance of black jockeys was a result of Antebellum customs. In the time of slavery, enslaved people were often the caretakers of horses on plantations, said Teresa Genaro, freelance turf writer and founder of Brooklyn Backstretch.
“What happened was that you had generation after generation of young black men who grew up around horses and grew up riding horses,” she said.
“The white plantation owners and white slave owners put people that they really trusted in charge of their horses, because their horses are obviously expensive, and necessary to the success of their plantations.”
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Decades after the end of slavery, black jockeys remained prominent in racing, riding 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derby winners. Some became widely celebrated, including 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.
Some white jockeys physically threatened their African-American colleagues — even on the track, said Kentucky Derby Museum curator Chris Goodlett.
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. The rise of 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.
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Jimmy Winkfield himself rode Alan-a-Dale across the finish line in 1902. No black jockey has won the Kentucky Derby since. And for a while, the contributions of African Americans to horse racing was largely forgotten.
But there are those who still honor them.
Shirley Mae Beard owns Shirley Mae’s Cafe in Louisville’s historically black Smoketown neighborhood. In 1989, she started an annual “Salute to Black Jockeys Who Pioneered the Kentucky Derby,” complete with carnival rides and farm animals.
Her event went on for years, and attracted celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Morgan Freeman. Photographs of black racing pioneers still decorate the cafe’s walls.
“The black jockeys were role models for the young black men. When we realized that people didn’t know about the black jockeys, that’s when we started the celebration,” Beard said.
Children in the neighborhood started to feel more connected to Derby history.
“At Derby time, I want them to know that this is a time for them to celebrate and be just as proud as everybody else. It was very encouraging to them and uplifting to them,” Beard said.
Photographs of Isaac Murphy and other racing pioneers decorate the walls of the cafe and serve as a way to keep the conversation going with patrons.
The Kentucky Derby Museum also educates the public about black jockeys, with a permanent exhibit called African Americans in Thoroughbred Racing to recognize the achievement of black jockeys. The display features the grave marker from famed jockey Isaac Murphy’s original grave, and boots worn by Aristides.
When we went to see the exhibit, it had been taken down to make way for the museum’s annual Derby gala. Goodlett said it will be back on display after Derby.
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The last black rider on a Derby mount was Kevin Krigger, who rode Goldencents in the 139th Kentucky Derby, in 2013. The two had won the Santa Anita Derby a month earlier, but Goldencents finished 17th out of 20 in the Run for the Roses.
Genaro said it’s unlikely his run heralded 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.”
Shirley Mae Beard isn’t hopefully either.
“Someday maybe, and someday not, but I doubt it because there’s so much money involved. You have to be awful good.”
Either way, history won’t be made this year; no black jockeys are expected to ride in the 141st Kentucky Derby on Saturday.