Black Jockeys Were Once the Backbone of the Kentucky Derby, Now They’ve Been All But Forgotten Over Time

Another Kentucky Derby race is in the books. The 150th running from Churchill Downs was thrilling and came down to a three-horse photo finish, with Mystik Dan winning by a nose. Among all the history associated with thoroughbred racing, the Kentucky Derby is the biggest event on the calendar. As this race kicks off what’s known as the Triple Crown series and everyone relishes in the spectacle, one can’t help but think about those forgotten participants. Those who dominated the sport at one time. 

Even with this knowledge, I’ve always felt like horse racing, especially the Kentucky Derby, is a staple event for many African Americans. I can attest to this personally as a Black man who grew up watching horse racing with my grandparents. They were from the South, so the sport was a part of their lives, and that was passed on to me. 

Historical Significance of African Americans in Horse Racing

Most people have no idea of the significance of African American jockeys in the early days of horse racing in this country. This rich history has been pushed to the background like many other accomplishments. Black jockeys won more than half of the Kentucky Derbies held from its beginning in 1875 to 1903. Fifteen of the first 28 races saw a Black jockey emerge victorious. In the first Derby, 13 of the 15 jockeys in the race were Black. 

In fact, the first six Derby winners were all African American. Black jockeys were featured and helped the sport flourish in its infancy. But by the early 1900s, the participation of Black jockeys in horse racing began to dwindle. Over the first quarter century of the sport, the group of jockeys that had ruled the track began to fade into the background. Oliver Lewis (who won the first derby in 1875), Willie Simms, Issac Burns Murphy and Jimmy Winkfield were prominent names along with many other Black jockeys who were forced out of the sport due to mounting racial tensions. In the 20th century, Cheryl White became the first Black woman to become a jockey and a California horse racing steward. Nevertheless, these examples further amplify the lack of visibility Black jockeys were up against.

“Most jockeys on Southern tracks were African American. At the first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, 13 of 15 jockeys were African American. Between 1890 and 1899, Black jockeys won six Derbies, one Preakness Stakes, and three Belmont Stakes. But in the early 1900s Black jockeys disappeared. Jimmy Winkfield was the last African American to win a Triple Crown race, in 1902. He was one of the last African Americans to ride in a Triple Crown race for almost a century.” – Michael Leeds & Hugh Rockoff

Upon taking in all this history, it was exciting to learn that this year’s derby included Larry Demeritte, a Black trainer who is only the second to take part in this prestigious race since 1951. What’s even more amazing is that the pride of Larry Demeritte’s 11-horse stable, West Saratoga, was purchased for $11,000. The dynamic between Demeritte and the horse proved good enough to qualify and race alongside ones like Sierra Leone ($2.3 million), the most expensive horse on the track on Saturday during what many call the most exciting two minutes in sports. Learning this opened my eyes to how we’ve really been shoved aside culturally and financially within horse racing. 

Where Did All the Black Jockeys Go?

By the turn of the century, African American jockeys were being phased out of the sport. Jim Crow laws, coupled with the ideologies of white horse owners and trainers, had taken hold. However, the final blow came from white jockeys who were determined to “draw the color line.” Michael Leeds and Hugh Rockoff examined this in, Jim Crow in the Saddle: The Expulsion of African American Jockeys from American Racing.

What happened in horse racing isn’t unlike what we’ve seen for centuries when it comes to Blacks in America. Somehow our history manages to get lost along the way. African Americans have a lot of history in this country when it comes to popular culture. You can look all over entertainment at examples of this whether it be Rock & Roll, Country music or Hip Hop.

When we look back at the history of horse racing, it runs parallel to the experience of successful Black Americans who were forced to give up their jobs and property due to racism and jealousy from their white counterparts. Despite a healthy fanbase of Black attendees at the Kentucky Derby, the 150th running included zero African American riders. As mentioned above, the first Derby featured 13 African American jockeys. The 2024 race included five more spots (20) than the first race in 1875. That’s how far-removed Blacks have become from the sport. While watching “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports,” the only African Americans noticeable near the track were those working on the Louisville, Kentucky-based grounds. 

“In the late 19th century in the first few decades of the Derby’s inception, Black jockeys were winning so often that they were ultimately expelled. In 2000, Marlon St. Julien became the first Black man to race in the Derby since 1921.” – DeArbea Walker Business Insider

Why You Should Care

Whether anyone wants to accept it, representation matters, especially when your people have a history in something that’s been repressed to such an extent that most don’t know it exists. Because of racism and segregation, Black jockeys were forced out of the sport of horse racing. But this doesn’t mean that their role and place down the stretch is not important.

This rich white man’s sport has always had its place (even when our presence wasn’t welcomed) within Black communities, especially among those with family ties to the southern part of the United States. Furthermore, Black folks have even fully embraced the fashion aspect of horse racing culture with its big fascinator hats, fancy dresses and tailored suits. In many respects, Black people in America will always care to some extent when it comes to horse racing, especially the Kentucky Derby. 

Growing up, the only time we would hear about many of these accomplishments by African Americans on a mainstream level was during Black History Month. Unfortunately, that’s still true in many respects today. But as long as we keep these memories alive as Black people in America, pushing our own narratives, no one will ever be able to keep our history in the background. 

Updated: May 6, 2024 — 3:03 pm