African Americans Have Longstanding Ties to Derby

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African Americans have a long and sometimes complicated history with the Kentucky Derby. Betty Baye is a columnist for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

One of America's most popular and shortest sporting events happens this weekend at Churchill Downs, in Louisville, Kentucky. But the Kentucky Derby is not just a place to sip mint juleps and rub elbows with the rich and famous.

Commentator Betty Baye says it's also a time for Louisville to shine.

Ms. BETTY BAYE (columnist, Courier-Journal, in Louisville, Kentucky): With the 132nd run for the roses, better known as the Kentucky Derby, set for Saturday, May the 6th, I don't imagine that The Fly Jock, Tom Joyner, will mind me tossing out what may be a few little-known black history facts outside of Kentucky.

I mean, did you know for example that African-Americans dominated the Kentucky Derby from its inception in 1875 through 1902? Or that Aristide, the first Kentucky Derby winner, was ridden by a black jockey, Oliver Lewis; and trained by an African-American too, Ansel Williamson.

Or how about this: African American jockeys rode 15 winners in the first 28 Kentucky Derby races, and those black jockeys included the legendary Isaac Murphy. He won the big horserace in 1884, 1890 and 1891. And Jimmy Winkfield, he rode to victory in the Kentucky Derbies of 1901 and 1902.

But, as the work of being a jockey and a horse trainer grew in prestige, the African American presence at the Kentucky Derby waned. And so today, while African Americans are certainly still in the game, it's rarely in positions where they'll be seen, wildly applauded, or handsomely paid. And that's why it was such a big deal in 1992, that a thoroughbred named Dance Floor, owned my M.C. Hammer--yes, that M.C. Hammer--came in third in the Kentucky Derby. And it was a big deal too, two years later that a horse owned by Motown mogul Barry Gordy ran eighth in the Kentucky Derby.

And it was big news again in 2000 with Marlon St. Julian became the first black jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby in 79 years. He didn't win, but he was there.

These days, a glance at the roster of jockeys reveals a significant percentage with Hispanic surnames. But I hasten to add that all the Kentucky Derby action isn't limited to the goings on at Louisville's fabled racetrack, Churchill Downs. Uh, Uh. By the time you hear this, two solid weeks of Derby-related festivities will be well underway. The well healed and the famous will be knee deep in their charity balls, auctions, fashion shows, and galas. And they attract to this city hired(ph) by the Ohio River celebrities of every stripe and hue, including kings, queens and presidents. And the locals and their out-of-town guests have plenty to do too. They're out clubbing, hosting backyard barbeques, family reunions, and going to concerts that appeal to every musical taste. And for the last 50 years, the non-profit Kentucky Derby Festival Organization has spiced things up during the Derby with dozens of family-oriented events. Such as the Great Hot Air Balloon Race, the Steamboat Race on the Ohio, the Pegasus Parade, and Thunder Over Louisville--which this year, drew 800,000 people for a major league air show and fireworks display.

What I'm saying is that, the two weeks of festivities that have bloomed around a two-minute horse race every first Saturday in May, is Louisville's equivalent of the New Orleans Mardi Gras. And though I doubt that there still are hotel rooms or unsold seats on scheduled flights to Louisville to be had during the first week in May, this transplanted New Yorker is urging all who can, and all who will to get here when you can. And has a certain hotel chain likes to say: We'll leave a light on for ya.

GORDON: Betty Baye is a columnist for the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.

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