Silks, Saddles and Discrimination

The disappearance of black jockeys from the Kentucky Derby and other races was no accident. A report from 1900 details a conspiracy to shut them out.

Jimmy Winkfield, circa 1903, at Hawthorne Race Track in Illinois
(Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

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.

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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.