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.
(Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
It goes on: "The means employed to shut out the black riders are said to be that whenever one of the proscribed jockeys participates in a race there is concerted action by all the white boys to bring about the defeat of the horse ridden by the negro." The singular ill luck of black riders " ... serves to remind possible employers that owners who expect to win races would only put up white jockeys. "
Whisenton is passionate as he reads aloud from the document he found: " 'Whether white jockeys devised the plan of a 'union' on their own behalf or whether they were advised by others has never come to light. None of them will even admit there is such an organized scheme. Whatever its strength and however formed, it appears to have been completely successful up to date. In the meantime, it has been a singularly rare occurrence that a negro jockey has had a mount. In the meantime, the stars of the pigskin saddle have stood down and watched comparative newcomers monopolize the riding.' "
Willie Simms went begging for mounts at tracks in New York state, only to be denied. Alonzo Clayton was arrested shortly before post time at Aqueduct Race Track and falsely accused of trying to fix a race. A near riot broke out as barred black jockeys fought with white riders in Chicago. The black jockeys who remained in racing were reduced to exercise riders, hot walkers and stable hands, raking horse manure from barns. The once unsurpassable Clayton passed away at 41, a bellboy at a Los Angeles hotel, in 1917.
The Race to Europe
The white-jockey union movement started in the North and worked its way through the Midwest and then the South. For that reason, Winkfield was still able to ride and win the 1901 Derby in Kentucky. In 1902 he became the last black jockey to win the Derby. He ran his last Derby in 1903, placing second, before Churchill Downs, too, succumbed to the pressure of the union.
A few black jockeys left the States for Europe, where they extended their careers. Winkfield was the most successful, winning every major race on the continent, including Russia's Moscow Derby, France's Prix du Président de la République and Germany's Grosser Preis von Baden.
Winkfield made and lost several fortunes. In Russia he lived in the Moscow National Hotel, owned a skating rink and held 4 percent of Russian railroad stock. He developed a fondness for caviar at breakfast and chauffeur-driven Duesenberg cars. Legend had it, if you were an American tourist and bet on a race that he did not win, you simply brought your betting ticket stubs to the hotel dining room, where he would buy them back.
Winkfield's escapades included narrow escapes during the Russian Revolution and the Nazi invasion of Paris during World War II. He survived and prospered until the ripe old age of 93. He died quietly at his horse-breeding farm at Maisons-Laffitte, near Paris, in 1974.
Richard T. Watkins is an award-winning broadcast journalist in Washington, D.C.