Chronicles of the Black Jockeys Volume II: When Americans were betting "Abe" on "Abe"

"Uncle Able Hawkins: The Black Prince”, “The Dark Sage of Louisiana”, “The Slayer of Lexington”

For a quarter of a century, his name has been familiar to those who take an interest in equine contests. All who have attended meetings on the turf in various parts of the United States for the past fifteen years will remember his swarthy face, his thoughtful air and his light figure.  As a rider and jockey, he had no equal in the country…  He was the master in his profession…  The Death of Old Abe is an irreparable loss to the American turf”… Turf, Field, and Farm (Orbituary, Abe Hawkins)group jockeys II

The first contest in modern American sports was the two-horse opener at Saratoga on August 3, 1863, which saw the African American jockey 'One-Eyed Sewell' on the horse ‘Lizzie W.’ defeat white jockey Billie Burgoyne riding his colt ‘Capt. Moore.’  In the aftermath of Emancipation, Union General Benjamin “Beast” Butler had dubbed slaves who had fled to freedom in the North, “contraband.”  This term often made it to Northern newspapers’ byline as well.  Of the win by Sewell, The Spirit of the Times wrote,  “We shall not soon forget the lurid light which glowed in the one eye of the contraband who rode her.”  But the Spirit had also set precedent with this Saratoga event by printing the names of the black jockeys (albeit only first names) along with their white counterparts, whereas previously, only the name of horses and white jockeys were printed.  In fact, in some later races across the country such as in St. Louis, the names of jockeys would be listed in the Laclede Association, only when “the visiting celebrity” Abe Hawkins was riding.

At that time, the first winning trainer was also an African American, Bill Bird, who had returned to America from training in England for his owner, the Dutchman Richard Ten Broeck.   By 1864, renown jockey Abe Hawkins was finding his way out of the south, competing west in St. Louis and in events in various northern states, contesting Derbies (annual races of three year olds), which then, were America’s effort to replicate the famed English Derby at Epsom.  Black jockey Abe Hawkins had gotten his start riding in the south for Duncan Kenner who owned Ashland Stables and who was the biggest slave owner in the Confederate Congress.  In 1865, Kenner had slipped out of the country on a steamer for Britain and France where he urged but failed to gain both countries’ recognition for the Confederacy.

Betting “Abe” on “Abe”

group jockeysBy the time he had raced in Saratoga in 1865, the country was in full celebration of the end of the Civil War.  Lincoln was in the White House and by 1864 the president’s image was imprinted on the currency of the land.  It was therefore said that these were the times when Americans were “betting Abe on Abe.” 

Abe Hawkins’ audience at Saratoga included war hero Ulysses S. Grant, amidst New York luminaries William Astor, Alexander Stewart, and Commodore Vanderbilt.  Some of the Northern press had fallen in love with Abe.  Words used in the press to describe him were often more apt to accolades of a deserving of Hector, son Priam, in his valiant defiance of Agamemnon’s men in the siege of Ilios, or to any tactical warrior or manifest strategic display of prowess.  Of his win, The Spirit of the Times declared, “To the extraordinary patience and judgment, Abe adds marvelous strength and skill.  With clip of knees and thighs that incorporate him with the horse, and arms that never tire, he always had his colt right by the head and directs unremitting observation to what the others were doing.  His sagacity is greatly relied on by the gentlemen who know him.”  An African American jockey in 1865 was being heralded as having “sagacity.” 

But this was the North, which had started to wall itself off from African Americans after their migrations from the South.  Unlike early racing years in the South where blacks and whites enjoyed horseracing, Abe was able to ride at Saratoga but African Americans were not allowed in the grandstands.  The Program for the race stated, “Colored persons not admitted to the stand”  Of this event, New York Tribune’s Horace Greeley wrote, “I should mention as a symptom of this era, when the capacity of the human race is to be demurred, that half the jockeys are the blackest Africans, and I have yet to learn that their color interferes with the fitness for this most responsible business.”

In a country that was predicated on the dominance of one race and the enslavement of another, the black jockey’s performance in horseracing was forcing onto the front pages, discussions of racial superiority and the capabilities of African Americans.   A black man had tried to enter a trotting race at Hamilton, Ontario in 1866 which prompted a reader to write in a question to The Spirit of the Times:  “Has the Negro a right to drive?  There never has been instance in the West where they permitted one to drive; and when he got into the wagon or sulky (carriage), the public hooted him down.”  The writer then made a bet that if the black driver had driven and won, “he could not have been declared the winner for betting purposes because in all gambling transactions, customs make the rule.” 

The newspaper disagreed with its reader and responded that he would be foolish to bet against the African American.  The editor replied, “You would have lost your bet.  Custom has nothing to do with it.  A man has as much right to employ a Negro to drive a trotter as to ride a racehorse, and if the Negro did drive and win, the owner of the horse would have just as good a right to the money as he would if Hiram Woodruff (celebrated white rider) had driven.  Does any man with a pennyweight of brains think the less of Charles Littlefield or Gilpatrick because they ride against Abe or Albert or Alexander’s Dick?

The accolades would continue to poor in as Abe Hawkins racked up wins after wins.  Of his return to New Orleans to win at the Jockey Club in 1866 (during aJockey Jesse time when he was likely already suffering from tuberculosis/”consumption”), the local paper stated, albeit patronizing tones, “The superior skill of Rousseau’s rider showed itself and he seemed fairly to life his steed ahead.  The renowned jockey, Abe, a black boy formerly owned by Col. Kenny (for twenty five years) and who still clings to his old master now that he is free.  He is probably the best rider on the continent, is dwarf in size but well formed and ‘knows the rope like a book.’  We make these remarks for the benefit of strangers, for all frequenters of the Southern turf know Abe.”  It is clear that they in the South did not know of Abe's notoriety outside of the South at that time.

In a June 1866 column entitled Meeting of The Colored Men, which related a meeting presided by the Rev. John Peterson on the best means to secure to the colored people, the right of suffrage, The New York Times wrote of the recently held New Jersey Derby in the very adjacent column, “The veteran Abe, by long odds the best colored jockey in America, was on Richmond, as he had been when he won last year’s Derby.”

Abe Hawkins was a very humble and modest man.  Even in slavery, many of the black jockeys had maintained a certain regard for their former masters who had first used them in their pursuit for fortune, fame and power.  After all, many of the jockeys such as Charles Stewart, were enriched in the process that they had to hire agents to manage their money.  At the top of his game, Abe Hawkins refused to ride in races where his thousand-dollar (or more) fee could not be met.  

On the day of his biggest victory at Saratoga in 1866, Abe recognized a Southerner from Louisiana among the crowd.   The Black Prince approached the gentleman and said, “I know, Sir, you are from New Orleans and are acquainted with Mr. Duncan Kenner.  I hear he has gone back there.  Did you see him?”  When the gentleman replied that he was and that he had seen Abe’s former owner quite often, Abe replied, “When you see Marse Duncan, will you please give him the message from me?  Tell him I have ridden a great many of races here in the North and have made a right smart of money.  It is all in the bank and it is his if he wants it, because I am just as much his servant as I ever was.”

On his return to New Orleans, the gentleman relayed message to former Confederate boss Duncan Kenner.  Kenner asked the man if he was going back to Saratoga and when he replied yes, Duncan Kenner said, “Look up Abe and tell him that I thank him very much for the offer, that I do not need the money, and add that my plantation has been restored to me and that Ashland is as much his home now as it ever was, and when he wishes to return, there will, he be welcomed.”  

Abe Hawkins would return to Ashland to die the very next year of tuberculosis.  

On his death on May 4th 1867, his obituary was important enough to appear on the editorial page of sporting weekly Turf, Field, and Farm, second only to the “The Situation in Europe,” which discussed the Franco Prussian hostilities. 

After numerous victories in the South "The Conqueror of Lexington” (legendary horse) (then said to be ‘the greatest jockey in the South until the Yankees arrived’) had made his way from slavery in the South to a champion rider in the North, winning the Jersey Derby twice, winning at Saratoga on his horse Rhinodine, winning the inaugural Jerome Stakes in New York, and inaugurating and winning the famed Travers Stakes (the oldest sporting venue in America today) three times.  Abe Hawkins had won twenty-five races totaling seventy-nine miles.

So celebrated was Abe that the owner of Jerome Stakes, Leonard Jerome, the grandfather to be of a future Winston Churchill, once lifted his twelve-year-old daughter Jennie (Churchill’s mother to be) onto Abe Hawkins after one race, in celebration of his purchase of the horse ‘Kentucky,’ which had dealt Abe one of his few defeats.  According to Edward Hotaling’s book “The Great Black Jockeys,” by the end of 1866, Abe Hawkins and his chief competitor, the Irish Gilbert Watson Patrick (“Gilpatrick”), had become the first two great athletes of modern American Sports.  Per Hotaling, Abe is thought to be buried under an Oak tree near the training tracks at Kenner's Ashland Farms in New Orleans.

Next:  The Kentucky Derby: Beautiful Women, Beautiful Horses, Black Jockeys

For more on the black jockeys and jockey boy paintings for sale, see

(Editors Note: In celebration of the history of black jockeys in the Kentucky Derby, we will spend a week chronicling the history of the great black jockeys who pioneered the sport but were then banished from the sport in the early 1900s, and from its history ever since. Kentucky Derby Facts: Black jockeys won 8 of the first 16 Derbies and 15 of the first 28.  13 of the 15 jockeys in 1875's inaugural Derby were black, including the winning jockey, Oliver Lewis aboard his horse Aristides.  Isaac "Ike" Murphy became the first jockey to capture successive Kentucky Derbies in 1891 and the first to win a total of three, and James “Wink” Winkfield would win successive races  in 1901 and again in 1902 on his horse Alan-a-Dale.  Other winners included Alonzo "Lonnie" Clayton, Babe Hurd, James "Soup" Perkins, Erskine Henderson, and Willie Simms. Sources include Edward Hotalings book, The Great Black Jockeys and The Library of Congress).  ©  


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