African Americans have a long history of racing horses — as celebrity jockeys.
African Americans have a long history of racing horses — as celebrity jockeys. iStockphoto.com
With the Kentucky Derby going to post the first Saturday in May, it seems an appropriate time to consider why black jockeys, who once dominated the sport of horse racing, are no longer in the running. A researcher in Washington, D.C., has uncovered evidence, contained in a turn-of-the-century newspaper article, explaining how black riders were systematically "unionized" out of the sport.
Black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 of America's most important horse races at Churchill Downs. In fact, every rider on the track at the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875 was black, except one. That race was won by a former slave, Oliver Lewis.
And yet black jockeys mysteriously began to disappear near the turn of the century. Today they are practically nonexistent. There have been varying explanations for this vanishing act. The discovery of this historic document sheds new light on exactly what happened.
There was a time when riding a racehorse was almost exclusively a black occupation. It began with plantation owners using lightweight slave boys to race their horses against rival owners. Some slaves were tied to horses to keep them from falling off, resulting in injury and sometimes death.
The Earliest Black Sports Stars
The history of Thoroughbred horse racing in America is rich with the legacy of black jockeys. These colorful characters included Kentucky Derby winners like Willie Simms, who introduced the short stirrup to the profession; Isaac Murphy, the Derby's first three-time winner; and Jimmy Winkfield, who finished all four Derbies he rode in the money, winning twice. Others — like Babe Hurd, Soup Perkins, Alonzo Clayton, Erskine Henderson and Billy Walker — were also Derby winners. And they were young, many still in their teens. Murphy turned pro at 14. Clayton won the Derby at 15. Winkfield won his first Kentucky Derby at 19.
Black jockeys were the first sports heroes in post-Civil War America. They were brash — sometimes arrogant — youngsters whose exploits and private lives were detailed in the daily press. At work they wore bright racing silks, fitted jodhpur britches and smart leather riding boots.
At play they were the toast of the town, tooling around in fancy carriages with the finest women. They built fabulous homes for their parents. They were represented by agents who negotiated lucrative contracts with horse owners. Small wonder that today's athletes are called jocks.
Black jockeys could afford all the luxuries of life in the fast lane. They were highly skilled, well-paid professional athletes. With the jockeys riding each mount for a fee plus a percentage of the winning purse, it was not unusual for a black jockey to make well over $20,000 a year.
In 1900 the average yearly income for a family of four was $1,200. In an era before personal income taxes, Murphy and Simms earned about $300,000 apiece in their short careers, the equivalent of about $15 million today.
The Price of Success
Money is what ultimately led to the demise of black jockeys, according to researcher Kenneth Whisenton, a retired sociology and business librarian from the Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library and Howard University's Founders Library in Washington, D.C. He says, "Black jockeys did not just vanish from horse racing — they were banished. As the Thoroughbred horse-racing industry grew in America, so did the size of the winning purses and the prosperity of black jockeys. Less talented and envious white riders conspired to get in on the take."
Whisenton has uncovered a New York Times article from 1900 with the headline, "Negro Jockeys Shut Out: Combination of White Riders to Bar Them From the Turf." The article begins:
The decline of the negro jockey has been so apparent since the season of 1900 opened that even the casual racegoer has had an opportunity to comment upon it.
The public generally accepted the theory that the old-time favorites of African blood had outgrown their skill, and really were out of date because of their inability to ride up to their form of past years," the article continues. "Racing men know better. As a matter of fact, the negro jockey is down and out, not because he could no longer ride, but because of a quietly formed combination to shut him out.
The article explains just how the union took hold and became an effective means of depriving black jockeys of their incomes: "... white riders have organized to draw the color line. In this they are said to be upheld and advised by certain horse owners and turfmen who have great influence in racing affairs. Rumor even went so far as to state that The Jockey Club approved the plan, tacitly and unofficially."
Unionized Jim Crow
Whisenton says, "Now, if that isn't the very definition of institutional racism at its ugliest, I don't know what is. Remember, this was a time when the Jim Crow era began to take hold." The Times describes how white riders enforced their ban on black jockeys through sabotage and subterfuge: "The negro riders got mounts at first, but then failed to win races. Somehow or other, they met with all sorts of accidents and interference in their races."
It goes on: "The means employed to shut out the black riders are said to be that whenever one of the proscribed jockeys participates in a race there is concerted action by all the white boys to bring about the defeat of the horse ridden by the negro." The singular ill luck of black riders "... serves to remind possible employers that owners who expect to win races would only put up white jockeys."
Whisenton is passionate as he reads aloud from the document he found: "'Whether white jockeys devised the plan of a 'union' on their own behalf or whether they were advised by others has never come to light. None of them will even admit there is such an organized scheme. Whatever its strength and however formed, it appears to have been completely successful up to date. In the meantime, it has been a singularly rare occurrence that a negro jockey has had a mount. In the meantime, the stars of the pigskin saddle have stood down and watched comparative newcomers monopolize the riding.'"
Willie Simms went begging for mounts at tracks in New York state, only to be denied. Alonzo Clayton was arrested shortly before post time at Aqueduct Race Track and falsely accused of trying to fix a race. A near riot broke out as barred black jockeys fought with white riders in Chicago. The black jockeys who remained in racing were reduced to exercise riders, hot walkers and stable hands, raking horse manure from barns. The once unsurpassable Clayton passed away at 41, a bellboy at a Los Angeles hotel, in 1917.
The Race to Europe
The white-jockey union movement started in the North and worked its way through the Midwest and then the South. For that reason, Winkfield was still able to ride and win the 1901 Derby in Kentucky. In 1902 he became the last black jockey to win the Derby. He ran his last Derby in 1903, placing second, before Churchill Downs, too, succumbed to the pressure of the union.
A few black jockeys left the States for Europe, where they extended their careers. Winkfield was the most successful, winning every major race on the continent, including Russia's Moscow Derby, France's Prix du President de la Republique and Germany's Grosser Preis von Baden.
Winkfield made and lost several fortunes. In Russia he lived in the Moscow National Hotel, owned a skating rink and held 4 percent of Russian railroad stock. He developed a fondness for caviar at breakfast and chauffeur-driven Duesenberg cars. Legend had it, if you were an American tourist and bet on a race that he did not win, you simply brought your betting ticket stubs to the hotel dining room, where he would buy them back.
Winkfield's escapades included narrow escapes during the Russian Revolution and the Nazi invasion of Paris during World War II. He survived and prospered until the ripe old age of 93. He died quietly at his horse-breeding farm at Maisons-Laffitte, near Paris, in 1974.