When Black jockeys ruled the Kentucky Derby

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By Erick Johnson

The social event of the year has come and gone at Churchill Downs.

A STATUE OF Aristides, the Kentucky Derby’s first winner sits in the gardens in front of the Clubhouse at Churchill Downs. Oliver Lewis, Black jockey, rode the horse to become the first winner of the prestigious race in 1875.

The well-heeled from all corners of the North America continent came to Louisville, Kentucky for the 145th edition of the Kentucky Derby. They gulped down Mint Julep cocktails, people-watched and participated in the best fashion show south of the Mason Dixon Line. There was much drama on the race track where Country House won after Maximum Security was disqualified. It was a historic race where a horse for the first time, won first place because of an objection by another jockey.

However, hundreds of yards away in front of the Clubhouse Gardens of Churchill Downs is the statue of Aristides, the famous horse who won the first Kentucky Derby in 1875. There is no statue of the jockey who made it all happen. He was Oliver Lewis, a Black man who was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby with Aristides.

Long before expensive fancy hats, bow ties and lavish parties rocked the social scene at Churchill Downs, Black jockeys ruled the Kentucky Derby, the oldest sporting event in America. Ten years after Congress abolished slavery with the 13th Amendment, Lewis won a Kentucky Derby race where 13 out of 15 jockeys were Black.

For the next nearly two decades, Black jockeys would win the Kentucky Derby, with some winning multiple times. In all, they captured 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derby races at a time when horseracing was the nation’s most popular sport. Together with their skills, bravado and competitive spirit, they captivated racing aficionados in a sport that gave some, fame and fortune.Today, they are the Kentucky Derby’s forgotten jockeys. They, along with Black horse trainers, Black buglers and Black horse handlers, were a brotherhood of sportsmen who laid the foundation for the Kentucky Derby’s storied history. More than a century after racism and discrimination forced them off the tracks, horse racing remains a lily-white sport for the rich and privileged.

It was a time when thoroughbred racing was tremendously popular in the South. Founding Black jockeys were young slaves who served as riders and trainers of horses on Southern plantations. They also cleaned the stables, and fed and groomed horses owned by their slave masters. From these duties, Blacks established a bond with the horses—one that gave them the ability to calm and connect with thoroughbreds in ways other jockeys could not.

Away from plantations, these Black jockeys were allowed to travel on the racing circuit. Black jockeys were allowed to compete alongside their white counterparts. Known as the “Sport of Kings” among Britain’s nobility, white horse owners in America found the sport entertaining. But for Black jockeys, the sport gave them freedom and status as people who were ordinarily treated as second-class citizens.

After the Civil War devastated racing in the South, freed Black jockeys traveled north to New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

On opening day on May 17, 1875, the freed riders mounted their horses at the newly- organized Kentucky Derby. Oliver Lewis, a 19-year-old Black native from Kentucky, rode Aristides, a chestnut colt trained by Ansel Williamson, a former slave from Virginia. At two minutes and seven seconds, Lewis and Aristides set a new American record time for the mile-and-a-half race.

Fourteen years later on May 10, 1889, George “Spider” Anderson became the first Black jockey to win the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown.

For his victory, Lewis received $2,850, which is about $277,311 adjusted to 2019 standards.

(This year’s Kentucky Derby winner takes home $1.86 million).

Two years after Lewis’ victory, William Walker, 17, a former slave from Versailles, Kentucky, became the second Black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. In 1880, Lewis’ brother, George Garrett Lewis, won the race.

In 1892, a Black teenager, Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton became the youngest—at just 15-years- old. In 1895, James “Soup” Perkins, who began horseracing at age 11, swept the Derby. Another Black jockey, Willie Simms, won the Derby title in 1896 and 1898. For two consecutive years, Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield won the Derby title in 1901 and 1902. He was the last Black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. 

The most decorated Black jockey of them all is Isaac Burns Murphy, nicknamed “the Black Maestro.” Murphy won three Kentucky Derby races with three different horses in 1884 (Buchanan), 1890 (Riley) and 1891 (Kingman). He was the first Black to win back-to-back Kentucky Derby titles. Several books have been written about him. By his own calculation, Murphy won 44 percent or 628 of his 1,412 races. In 1955, he became the first Black jockey to be inducted into the National Museum Racing Hall of Fame.

Decades later, the organization inducted Simms, Winkfield and two other Black jockeys, Shelby “Pike” Barnes and Anthony Hamilton. Despite their contributions, no Black horse trainers who helped Black jockeys win the Kentucky Derby have been inducted into the National Museum Racing Hall of Fame.

Born Isaac Burns in Frankfort, Kentucky in 1861, Murphy’s father was a free Black man and a bricklayer. His mother was a laundrywoman. During the Civil War, his father joined the Union Army. He died in a Confederate camp for prisoners of war. After his father’s death, Burns and his mother moved to live with her father, Green Murphy, a bell ringer and auction crier, in Lexington, Kentucky. When he started racing horses, Burns changed his last name to Murphy.

After the move to Lexington, Kentucky, Murphy’s mother worked at the Richard and Owings Racing Stable. He started accompanying his mother to work, and because of his small size, Murphy  was noticed by a Black trainer named Eli Jordan. The trainer prepared him for his first race at age 14. Murphy’s first winning race was on September 15, 1875 at the Lexington Crab Orchard.

While Murphy was known for his competitive spirit, he was also praised for his intellect and his ability to communicate with his horse.

In his book, “The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy,” Pellom McDaniels wrote that Murphy was smart. He understood how to play the game within the game. He used his mental prowess to outwit and intimidate his challengers.

According to the National Racing Hall of Fame, Murphy once refused to let champion, Falsetto, lose the 1879 Kenner Stakes, even though gamblers enticed him with bribes.

Murphy and other Black jockeys garnered lucrative contracts worth upwards to $15,000 per season (at that time) because they excelled on the track. They obtained the credibility and success that white jockeys envied.

At the peak of his career, Murphy received an average yearly salary of $10,000-$20,000, excluding bonuses, making him the highest-paid jockey in the United States. He lived in a mansion in Lexington. It is believed that Murphy was the first African American to own a racehorse. He owned several racehorses and invested in real estate as well.

The success of Black jockeys began to dwindle after 1902. White jockeys became more envious of the success of Black jockeys. They worked with white horse owners to prevent Black jockeys from riding thoroughbred mounts. Black jockeys who were able to compete were in danger of being forced over the rail by white jockeys who were not fined for their behavior.

Winkfield received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. In 1911, Jess Conley finished third in the Derby, and Henry King finished 10th in 1921. From 1921 to 2000, there were no Black jockeys competing in the Kentucky Derby.

In August 1890, Murphy was suspended for racing while intoxicated after falling off his horse in a race. In the following years, he also ran and won fewer races as he battled both alcohol abuse and weight gain. In 1896, Murphy died in Lexington, Kentucky. He was only 35. He was buried in an unmarked grave in African Cemetery No. 2 in Lexington.

The neglected burial ground was also the final resting place for many of the Black jockeys, including Lewis, Perkins and Conley. Many of the graves have been damaged by time and neglect. In 1967, Murphy’s remains were reinterred before they were reinterred again at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. He’s buried across from Man o’ War, a decorated thoroughbred that’s still considered the greatest racing horse that ever lived.

The Kentucky Derby Museum has an exhibit featuring the original bag that contained cash winnings of Murphy’s Kentucky Derby victories. Lewis is featured on a wall in one of the museum’s lobbies.

Each year, the Isaac Murphy Award is given to the jockey who has the highest winning percentage by the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters. In 1997, the American Derby at Arlington Park Racecourse in the Chicago area was renamed the Isaac Murphy Stakes.

In 2013, Kevin Krigger became just the second African-American jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby since 1921. He rode Goldencents, which is co-owned by Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino. The pair finished seventeenth. In 2000, another Black jockey, Marlon St. Julien finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby.

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