Black jockeys were squeezed out in sport of kings
While in Kentucky during a cross-country trip on horseback in 2007, a 58-year-old New Jersey social studies teacher named Miles Dean got the idea for what he called The National Day of the Black Jockey.
It failed to catch on. Dean, who rode more than six months and 5,000 miles to raise awareness for black cowboys and the historical contributions of African-Americans, said the project was too big. But Saturday might be an important day for one black jockey in particular and perhaps many others in and outside of racing, including Dean, if Kevin Krigger wins the 139th Kentucky Derby aboard Goldencents.
“I think he could be a hero, a role model and an inspiration to many African-Americans, especially the young,” Dean said.
No black jockey has won the Derby since Jimmy Winkfield in 1901 and 1902. A 29-year-old native of St. Croix, Krigger keeps a picture of Winkfield in his locker at Santa Anita Park.
“You have to appreciate your history or else your present doesn't mean much,” he told reporters this week in Louisville.
For most of the 19th century, starting when jockeys were slaves and nearly all the racetracks located in the south, African-Americans dominated racing, winning 13 of the first 28 Kentucky Derbys. The best was Isaac Murphy, who won three of the races in the 1880s and '90s. National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame historian Allen Carter calls Murphy likely “the greatest jockey of all time, not just the greatest black jockey.”
But after Winkfield's win in 1902 black jockeys “never returned to prominence,” assistant historian Jim Melia said. “They never returned, at all.”
He added, “It wasn't a gradual ending. It came with a thud.”
Marlon St. Julien, who finished seventh aboard Curule in 2000, was the first African-American to ride in the Derby in 79 years and the last until Krigger. Only about 50 of the 1,000 or so jockeys who ride regularly nationwide are black, according to the Jockey's Guild.
James R. Saunders, who wrote, “Black Winning Jockeys in the Kentucky Derby,” said the 1894 formation of the Jockey Club, which licensed and re-licensed jockeys, hurt African-Americans. As racing became more lucrative, or, as he said in an e-mail, “black men became rich,” they began to be squeezed out.
“Black jockeys were told they were not welcome anymore,” Saunders said, noting that fouls against black jockeys went uncalled and blacks often were cut off on the track as they began to accelerate. He said many black jockeys were intentionally injured during races. Off the track, they were physically threatened.
“As purses increased the sport became more and more popular,” Melia said. “(African-Americans) were literally forced off the track by endangering them to the point that owners didn't want to put them out.”
Not because of concern for the jockeys, Melia said. But rather for the horses.
Things got so bad that Winkfield left the U.S. to ride in Europe and Russia. He later returned and became a trainer.
“Had he been able to stay and perform on a racially level playing field,” Saunders said, “he more than likely would have had more victories than anyone else in Kentucky Derby history.”
As black participation dwindled, white jockeys eventually were joined by Latinos, who came from Puerto Rico and countries where racing was more prominent than in the U.S. Other sports passed racing in popularity long ago, and few African-American youngsters grew up wanting to be jockeys. “There was just no interest,” Melia said.
Still, a win by a black jockey Saturday would be a big story. If that happens, Dean said he hopes Krigger gives more than a cursory nod to his long-ago predecessors.
“It would be meaningful if he were to place the significance of his win in the context of history as it relates to black jockeys of the past,” Dean said. “It would be a tribute to the memory of the African-American jockeys.”