The Lost History of Black Jockeys

DeAngelo Starnes, EbonyJet, June 5, 2009

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From 1823 until the start of the Civil War, horse racing was the most popular sport in America with black jockeys reaping bigger purses for their owners. Earnings from racing provided jockeys lifestyle options other blacks, free or slave, didn’t enjoy. They were allowed to travel off the plantation, sometimes without a white escort. They were treated better than the average black person.

A slave jockey could earn enough money to purchase his and his family’s freedom. He could even earn enough money to purchase his own slaves. {snip}

The Civil War temporarily disrupted horse racing when the horses were needed for war efforts. During Reconstruction, African American jockeys experienced some of their most notable achievements, particularly in the Kentucky Derby. The first winner of the Kentucky Derby was an African American, Oliver Lewis. In fact, there were 13 African American jockeys in that first race, five of whom also had black trainers. Fifteen of the first twenty-eight Kentucky Derby winners were African American. The youngest person to win the Derby was a 15-year old African American named Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton. Isaac Murphy was perhaps the most successful of these Black jockeys at this time, winning the Derby three times–a record which stood for close to forty years. Arguably, Murphy is the greatest jockey of all time, as his 44 percent winning rate remains the highest in history. Willie Simms is the only African American to have won all of the Triple Crown races.

Eventually, segregated competition took over interracial sporting competition for close to sixty years beginning in 1890. In his book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, author William Rhoden attributes this demise to the “Jockey Syndrome.” Rhoden describes the Jockey Syndrome as a changing of the rules of the game when competition begins to gain ground. It usually involves a series of maneuvers to facilitate racist outcomes, including the taking away of previously gained rights and the diluting of access through coercive power and force, a phenomenon that was common outside of sports as well, of course. Black Americans would see that clearly when the Civil Rights Act they celebrated in 1875 was almost completely overturned by the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1890. [Thus] the Jockey Syndrome has been the primary mechanism in American sports for tilting the ostensible level playing field of sport away from equal opportunity and toward white supremacy.

In short, the conspicuous success of the black jockeys led to their demise.

Rhoden’s observation played out in black jockeys being refused membership in Jockey Clubs, which operated as a jockey’s union of sorts. If you weren’t a member of a jockey club, you couldn’t race. In other instances, black jockeys were not hired to race horses. And when a black jockey was allowed to race, white jockeys would gang up on him and commit such acts as pocketing the rider along the rails or bracketing him within the pack, bumping and knocking the rider out of his saddle, or simply running the horse off the track.

It was these kinds of actions that caused Jimmy Winkfield, the last of the great African American jockeys, to take his game overseas. Winkfield, like Murphy, won back-to-back Kentucky Derby races before, like many black American jazz musicians during the bebop era, finding love in Europe.

Black jockeys haven’t disappeared altogether though. Cheryl White, who graced the cover of Jet on July 29, 1971 and achieved many firsts for female jockeys, won close to 750 races on various tracks prior to her retirement in the early 1990s. In 2000, Mark St. Julien was the first African American to race in the Kentucky Derby in 79 years. If you include Blackstyle, Calvin Borel’s chest-pumping upon his upset victory in this year’s Kentucky Derby brought forth the spirit of the Black jockeys as embodied by today’s Black athletes, albeit in a white man’s body. Finally, 19-year old British black jockey, Ricky Alleyne, aspires to be the Tiger Woods of horse racing. Which seems to complete the circle, in a sense.

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