Home > Black American History > In the Saddle: History of the Black Jockey

In the Saddle: History of the Black Jockey

The image of a cast iron black lawn jockey statue, with its exaggerated stereotypical facial characteristics, sitting on a front lawn conjures up thoughts of racism.  Due to the almost total absence of blacks in the sport today, many do not even realize that there is an historical context to the image of a black jockey. 

In the sport of Horse Racing, it is rare today to see Blacks in the saddle.  In fact, in the 2000 Kentucky Derby, Marlon St. Julien became the first black jockey to race in the Kentucky Derby since 1921.  Yet, in the early post-Civil War era, black jockeys dominated the sport.

Horse racing was America’s first national sport and it was America’s first integrated sport. (Civil War America, 1850 to 1875 by Richard F. Selcer, New York: Infobase Publishing, 2006, pg. 406)  During slavery, blacks were stable hands, horse trainers and jockeys.  The black jockeys were afforded freedoms that other slaves were not, often being able to travel away from the plantation, sometimes even without the accompaniment of a white supervisor. 

In the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, 13 of the 15 jockeys were African-American, and the Derby winner, Oliver Lewis, was African American.  Black Jockeys won 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derbies. 

The biggest name in the sport in the Nineteenth century was Isaac Murphy.  Murphy rode in 1,412 races and won 628 of them, an unprecedented 44 percent winning percentage, the best winning record of all time.  (A Concise History of Kentucky by James C Klotter & Freda C. Klotter, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2008, pg.80)  He became the first jockey to win three Kentucky Derbies. Murphy was also the first jockey elected to the Hall of Fame.

Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton, at age 15, won the Kentucky Derby in 1892.  He still shares the record as the youngest winner of the Kentucky Derby.

James “Soup” Perkins won 192 races in 1895, which earned him the title of national champion.  He shares the distinction of being the youngest Kentucky Derby winner with Alonzo Clayton, winning the Derby in 1895.

Willie Simms won the Kentucky Derby in 1898.  He was the first rider to shorten his stirrups and ride in a crouching position, a style that is now the norm in modern times.  By the time Simms retired in 1901, he had amassed a total of $300,000 in earnings. (Sports in American History: from Colonization to Globalization by Gerald R Gems, Linda J. Borish, and Gertrud Pfister, Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2008, pg. 207) 

Jimmy Winkfield is one of only four jockeys to win back-to-back Derbies, winning in 1902 (on His Eminence) and 1902 (On Alan-A-Dale).  He was also the last black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. Winkfield joined Murphy and Simms in the National Racing Hall of Fame.

By the 1900s, there was a concerted effort in place to remove blacks from the sport.  As Jim Crow laws intensified segregation, blacks were marginalized to the fringes of the sport.  Blacks found it increasing more difficult to get licenses to race when the Jockey Club, a licensing agency formed in 1894, banned black membership.  (Encyclopedia of Ethnicity and Sports in the United States by George B. Kirsch, Othello Harris, and Elaine Nolte, Westwood: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000, pg. 5) White jockeys even colluded in races to knock them off their horses, block them in, or force them into the rails. By 1921, there were very few black Jockeys left in American Horse Racing.  Many black jockeys were forced to resume their racing careers in Europe.  Jimmie Winkfield left the United States and moved to czarist Russia, becoming a wealthy and dominant force in Russia’s national sport. Winkfield retired in France after winning 2,600 races in ten different countries.

 The great black out in Horse Racing is a major stain on the fabric of the sport, but no one can deny the great history and contributions that black jockeys brought to racing.

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