“Today will be historic in Kentucky annals as the first ‘Derby Day’ of what promises to be a long series of annual turf festivities of which we confidently expect our grandchildren, a hundred years hence, to celebrate in glorious rejoicings.”—Louisville Courier-Journal, May 17, 1875
As we look forward to the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby, we are reminded that it is impossible to talk about the “greatest two minutes in sports” without also talking about African American history. The two are inextricably tied. Of the fifteen riders at the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, thirteen were black, including the winning jockey, Oliver Lewis. Lewis rode Aristides to victory with the help of trainer Ansel Williamson, a former slave.
In the early days of American horse racing, many of the jockeys were slaves, who, after emancipation, continued working as trainers and riders for their former owners. Black jockeys won half of the first sixteen Derbies, and fifteen of the first twenty-eight, and most of the trainers were African American as well.
There was plenty of fame and fortune to be found for successful trainers and riders. At the third Kentucky Derby in 1877, the rider-trainer duo of Billy Walker and Ed “Brown Dick” Brown, guided Baden-Baden to a win. Ed Brown was one of the most successful trainers in the country and famous for his expensive suits and large bankrolls. Brown’s career in racing spanned more than 30 years as a jockey (who won the Belmont Stakes in 1870), a trainer, and as an owner. His horse, Monrovia, won the Kentucky Oaks in 1893. His filly, Etta, won in 1900. He was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 1984.
Some of the best-known names of the era were the jockeys. Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton still holds the record as the youngest-ever Kentucky Derby winner. At the age of 15, he won the 1892 Derby astride Azra. Isaac Burns Murphy was very well respected by his fellow jockeys, trainers, owners, breeders, and fans across the country. He was the first jockey to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbies. James “Jimmy” Winkfield almost eclipsed Murphy’s record in 1903, when he placed second in what would have been his third Kentucky Derby win in a row.
Unfortunately, Jimmy Winkfield was also the last African American to win the Kentucky Derby. Since 1911, when Jess Conley finished third, only three other black jockeys have ridden horses in the Derby. As James C. Nicholson writes in The Kentucky Derby:
“In fact, black riders were forced out of the sport by jealous white jockeys and bigoted owners and trainers in an increasingly racially biased American society whose court system had given official sanction to various Jim Crow laws by the end of the nineteenth century. As the Derby became increasingly popular on a national scale in the twentieth century, blacks still played indispensable roles in the lives of racehorses and the sport of horse racing. But grooms, hot-walkers, and stable hands operated far from the spotlight that would shine ever brighter on top athletes, including jockeys.”
This Saturday, as the riders take their mounts and as we celebrate the horse-trainer-jockey team who take their victory lap around the winners circle, take a moment to remember history and the men who should never be forgotten.
This post originally appeared on our blog on April 26, 2015.