I am lucky enough to have three knucklehead grand kids keeping me on my toes. Maddie is 10, and John and Jordan are boy and girl 9-year-old twins. In their minds I am the smartest person in the world when it comes to sports. So, when a sports question comes up, I better have an answer.
This all started with the NBA playoffs, the Indianapolis 500 and the Triple Crown of Horse Racing falling within a few weeks of each other. I was asked what event is my favorite, and responded with the Triple Crown as my answer. Then I was hit with an eye opening question: “Have there ever been any African American Jockeys?”
After I answered “yes,” I felt the need to explain that there were, in fact, two Black jockeys in the Kentucky Derby– Kevin Krigger and Victor Lebron. They are among the 50 Black jockeys active at the present time.
With this answer ringing in my head, I thought maybe there are more than a few people with that same question. So, I thought I might throw together a little history lesson.
Jimmy Winkfield was the first colored jockey to win the Derby back in 1902. His accomplishment was major, but he was not the first, or only, colored jockey of the era.
Slave owners would select a slave to feed, groom, exercise, and pamper a prize horse, and when they would gather to race these horses for sport, the slave was the jockey.
In 1965 when the Civil War was over, horse racing became one of the major sports events. These jockeys, now free men, would race for money. In May of 1875, the first Kentucky Derby was contested. Fittingly it was won by a 19 year-old colored man, Oliver Lewis, aboard Aristides. And 15 of the following 28 Derbies were won by colored jockeys.
William Walker, like Lewis, was from Kentucky, and the following year at age 17 Walker won the Derby aboard Baden Baden. Walker had such a successful career in the U.S. and abroad he was able to parley his success into a second career as a racing correspondent.
In 1892 Lonnie Clayton won the Derby, and was the youngest to do so at age 15. He was one of only three colored jockeys to participate in the Preakness for much of early racing history. His best finish was third in 1896.
Willie Simms was the only colored jockey to win all three of the Triple Crown events. He also raced in England becoming the first American to win on a Britisn course. In his 14-year career, Simms won 1,100 races.
Issac Murphy was not only the crown prince among colored riders, he is considered to have been one of the most popular jockeys of his time. He won the Derby three times and finished his career with a winning percentage of 44 percent.
Although Murphy was the most popular, Jimmy Winkfield was the most successful. However the barbs of racism and threats from the Ku Klux Klan caused him to take his talents to Europe. In Europe he enjoyed popularity as well a success. He won races all over the continent and eventually married into an aristocratic Russian family. Unfortunately after the Russian Revolution of 1917 he became just a footnote in U.S. history.