Kentucky Derby, Black Jockeys?! In What Universe?

I’d never heard of Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield, and I was OK with that. Here’s a piece of history that I learned today thanks to @MrBlackJockey on Twitter: At one time, before the Jim Crow laws, Black jockeys dominated horse racing.

Bob Hope and Jimmy "Wink" Winkfield. Jet Magazine, 1953.

Lisa Winkler writes in “The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Jockeys” for Smithsonian Magazine the “In the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, 13 out of 15 jockeys were black. Among the first 28 derby winners, 15 were black. African American jockeys excelled in the sport in the late 1800s. But by 1921, they had disappeared from the Kentucky track…”

The Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896, AKA “Separate but Equal” would slowly create a situation where black jockeys could not be at the race tracks by law. Imagine every Black man on the Miami Heat, for example, getting locked out (and every Black fan too). Now imagine it across the NBA, across all sports.

Isaac Burns Murphy, one of two Black jockeys in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, Saratoga, N.Y., and the first jockey elected to the Hall of Fame.

As the race track situation worsened, some jockeys, trainers and grooms migrated to the North for other opportunities, but the era of Black jockeys was over in the U.S.A. One jockey, Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield left the country in 1904, and went to Czarist Russia. He became a champion racer there, and after the Bolshevik Revolution, he sought refuge in France. He raced in France from 1920 to 1930 and then retired with 2,600 lifetime wins.

Winkfield handled a lot of hardships in his life. He had to overcome the struggles with his career in the U.S. under Jim Crow and a tough economy, losing his stables in France to the Nazis during the Occupation, and of coursre the slights such as the one dealt him when he returned to Kentucky in 1961 for a pre-Derby gala event as a guest of Sports Illustrated when he had to persist in order to be granted admittance.

Once the board shifted, it shifted for a long time. Not one Black jockey raced in the Kentucky Derby after 1921 until Marlon St. Julien raced in 2000.

On this 11th day of Black History Month, I honor Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield and Isaac Burns Murphy for their superb achievements in the sport of horse racing.


More information:
National Museum of Racing Hall-of-Famer Isaac Burns Murphy in BlackPast.org and the official Hall of Fame bio

Smithsonian Magazine article about the history of Black jockeys: The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Jockeys

James “Wink” Winkfield in the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame

Black Jockeys will be commemorated over Memorial Day Weekend, 2011, at the Kentucky Derby. Information about the events

MrBlackJockey on Twitter

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