Chronicles of The Black Jockeys Volume III: The Kentucky Derby: Beautiful Women, Beautiful Horses, Black Jockeys

Walking in the shadows of ancestral footsteps is often a difficult task.  It becomes monumental when the sport is horseracing and the jockey is African American.  When Marlon St. Julien mounted in 2000, he was the first African American to do so in 79 years.  With the participation of black jockey Kevin Krigger in the 139th running of the Derby, we are reminded of this monumental legacy, albeit forgotten and one which has been largely written out of American history.

This is the third volume in a series articles on the slaves who took their great horsemanship from group jockeysthe horns of Africa to pioneer the new sport of horseracing in America, starting somewhere around the 1670s, evolving through The American Revolution, through the Civil War and Emancipation, and up to descendants who dominated the Kentucky Derby from its 1875 inaugural through 1902, when the game’s history, money, and prestige deemed the need to recast itself, exclusive of its black legacy.

By the late 1860s, black jockeys were still dominating horseracing in the American South and West.  In 1870, black jockey and former slave Dick (later a successful trainer known by his proper name Ed Brown) took the Belmont Stakes (oldest of the Triple Crown events) at Jerome Park, riding the horse Kingfisher.  Trainer Raleigh Colston became the first African American to train a winning horse at Belmont.  By 1871, black jockey Albert Welch, who had been purchased at age three months old along with his mother for $150, had dethroned both star white rider “Gilpatrick” and black legend Abe Hawkins.  Many trainers, such as the winning trainer of the first New Jersey Derby at Patterson (1864), former slave Ansel Williamson, and “Mose”, trainer of the winning Longfellow in 1871’s notorious Longfellow-Kingfisher duel for the Saratoga cup, were black.

As racing marched forward, so did the black jockeys, trainers, and groomsmen.  Melvin Landon, writer for The New York Commercial Advertiser would describe this 1871 Saratoga cup as “the grandest race which has ever or will ever take place on this continent and a race on which will be staked untold thousands.”  But with this march forward, remnants of the old South remained behind the scenes in the stables.  Like the ‘Juneteenth’ slaves of Texas, many black hands – jockeys, trainers, and groomsmen - were often shielded from the outside world.  According to Hotaling, "The Old South hadn’t died in the racing stable.”  He characterizes this ‘shield’ as, "having previously protected them from much of the horrors of slavery but then ended up hiding from them, much of the newly won rights and freedoms of their fellow African Americans after Emancipation."

After the Saratoga Cup in 1871, Longfellow’s owner, 'Uncle' John Harper was asked by reporter Jockey LouMelvin Landon, “Who have you got training this $60,000 worth of horse?” to which Harper replied, “Oh my darky boys take car of him.  They are good boys.  I raise’em too, on the farm with the horses.  The boys like the horses and they get on well together.  I bought ole Jake there from Dr. Shelby for $1,500 in Kentucky but I think as much of him as I do of Longfellow.”  This would seem very ‘generous’ of Uncle John. That he held the product bought for $1,500 in the same esteem as the one bought for $60,000 along with possibility of enrichment might be unrivaled among men of his kind in those days.  Yet John Harper’s brutish discourse gave way to a more serious observation:  The black jockeys were successful because they grew up with and around the horses.  They knew the horses and the horses knew them - just as members of a family know each other.

In that summer of 1871, a reporter for The Herald stopped by Thomas W. Dosswell’s stable and wrote the following:  “The happiest specimen of the black group was the orange-clad boy of yesterday that rode Ecliptic to victory.  The costume had gone.  Barefooted and with clothes considerably the worse for wear, ‘toted’ all the way from Virginia and lacking much of the picturesque, he lay half asleep, with his head in the doorway of his master’s stable and feet elevated upon a water pail just beyond.  It looked as if he had offered the white-worn bottoms of his feet as a flag of truce not to be awakened, and his expressions denoted that he was satisfied and enjoyed the hallucination of being comfortably undresses in bed.  Life to the young ‘contraband’ that instant was pleasant and seemed to have been arrested, in his case, not exactly as it was in the Palace of the Sleeping Beauty, for I discovered but little picturesqueness in his slumbers, and I did not believe any young beautiful young princess would ever want to wake him with a kiss.”

Later in the century, the likes of Ike Murphy and others, would herald in the celebrity period of the black jockey, wherein the beautiful young princesses would invariably accompany the inherent fame and fortune.

By 1872, John Sample was among the leading jockeys in the country, this time, riding Longfellow Harpers 1for Uncle John Harper.  In his July 2nd 1872 race at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, 40,000 was said to be in attendance.  According to Edward Hotaling’s book The Great Black Jockeys, dignitaries and aristocrats arrived in special railcars from the south and the Philadelphia area and in luxurious carriages from northern New Jersey area, while laborers, sales clerks, and oil & gas workers flowed in from New York City on steamboats.  The New York Times dubbed it  “The Greatest Contest in the History of the American turf,” while declaring, “Longfellow is now crowned king of the turf,” after Sample dealt defeat to Jimmy Rowe on the Harry Bassett.

By comparison, baseball, the sport which gave rise to the legend of Jackie Robinson and his 'integration of professional sports in America', was at the time, in a distant struggle to be the recognized as the second national past time of the country.  While horseracing in Monmouth New Jersey was attracting 40,000 people, the Brooklyn hometown team, the Atlantics, played the New York Mutuals to a crowd of only three hundred people.

The paradox of horseracing and baseball cannot be lost here, as they both followed the construct of placement and achievements in America in the last three centuries.  History would not tolerate or permit its own writing of former slaves into recognized pioneers in any field.  African Americans could not be recognized as the “first (men or women) to have done ‘it’.”  But instead, they could only be recognized as “the first ‘black’ to have done it.”  By this construct, whatever “it” might be, white America would have long establish for itself, pioneering status, exclusivity, and in most cases, dominance.

So in a sport that evolved with both black and white riders but wherein the black jockeys had actually once dominated, the fate of the black jockeys was sealed.  Were they riding in a segregated “black” racing league (an equivalent negro league of baseball), they might have been preserved to one day join the professional “white” racing industry, with the same accolades and recognition endowed on some ‘lucky’ black jockey, as having been the first to integrate the sport of horse-racing, much like Jackie Robinson and baseball.  But this could not be so in a sport pioneered and dominated by black jockeys from its very inception.

In fact, by the end of the 19th century, horseracing was the only facet of American life in which one could easily point to some element of African American equality or even superiority over white counterparts.  It was the only facet of American life in which African Americans enjoyed some measure of equality through their talents and acquired fame and fortune.  Talent without fame had never previously manifested into better lives for blacks.  But black jockeys such as Abe Hawkins and later Isaac Murphy would become national celebrities of the time, with Murphy earning upwards of 20 to 30,000 dollars annually, owning huge estates, and even hiring himself a white valets.   Murphy’s own downfall came after drinking ‘specially imported’ Apollinaris water before a race, only to crumble.  He believed the water was poisoned.  Others believed his champagne-filled clambake party just 40 hours before the race was responsible.  The emphasis here is a certain celebrity lifestyle started with black jockeys more than a century ago, and not with African American actors, musicians, performers, boxers, basketball players, or football players of the 20th century.

Concerns of Northern White Establishment

grey eagleAt a certain point in the 1800s, the establishment took notice and began to be agitated.  According to Hotaling, “it would be no longer acceptable for the white establishment to have black jockeys atop the sport.”  The arrival of champion black jockeys from the South to Northeast Clubs was clearly arousing racial prejudices. The Herald’s September 1889 headline, “Colored Jockeys Show the Way” declared, “If a composite photograph had been made of the jockeys who rode the six winners at Gravesend yesterday afternoon, it would have been black as Erebus.  There wouldn’t have been a single light in it, unless the camera had happened to catch (Tony) Hamilton with his mouth wide open, displaying the pearly white teeth which form the only relieving feature on his coal black face.  The sons of Ham outrode the children of Japhet with a vengeance, for not a single white boy was successful in guiding a winner past the judges.  It was field day for dusky riders, and they forced their Caucasian competitors to take positions in the background.”

In 1887, Harpers Weekly had heralded the “great white hopes” at the same Brooklyn Jockey Club track at Gravesend by stating, “The professional jockeys some years ago were Southern Negroes, and with the exception of a few cross-country riders of Irish parentage, monopolized all the mounts.  Today, it is very different.  With McLaughlin, Garrison, Luke, and McCarthy – a quartet equal to any in the world – there is but little doubt that if a horse has got it in him to win, he will have to do it when either of them is on his back.”  Banishment from the sport was clearly being envisioned.  This would be accomplished as well with a revision to the history of the sport. 

Incidentally, much of the sporting terms used in the American vocabulary today, such as “photo-finish”, “dead-heat”, “great white hope”, etc., had their origins in horseracing and not boxing, baseball, or any other sport.

The ‘Sinners’ and the ‘Saints’

The irony of slavery and race relationships in America is that while the South was responsible for slavery, Jim Crow, and some of the most heinous crimes against African Americans, the lives of Southern whites and that of African Americans have always been intertwined in a way in which the two understood each other, each communicating daily to the other, that things are the way they are, as a result of the need for maintenance of power and economic advantage.  Blacks in the South have never believed they were inferior and whites have never comfortably believed or were secure in their ‘superiority.’

In the North however, separating the saint from the sinner was often an attempt at distinguishing where there were no differences.  Oscar Wilde delineated the principal difference between the saint and the sinner as, “one having a future and the other, a past.”   The highfalutin, morally superior Northern whites who chagrined at the horrors of slavery and her smiling yet equally brutal cousins, Jim Crow and segregation, have always believed in freedom for blacks, as long as blacks were not free to roam their neighborhoods, free to enjoy equal status on their turf in areas of work, politics, or sports.   It was a choice between two poisons: an economically driven brutal enforcement of slavery and segregation in a South built on free black labor versus a morally superior ruling-class mentality of a North, which would itself benefit from cheap labor but with one exception – it preached freedom while practicing and accepting segregation.  In the North, whites and blacks would not become close enough to understand the language or mannerisms of each other, thereby enabling any communication or understanding between the two.  Horseracing was therefore, the first testing ground of this then new American dilemma post Emancipation.  Northern whites did not want to see slavery but neither did they want to see former slaves enjoying the equality of dominating what was now becoming their main past time.

Northern “White Privileges”

Whereas black jockeys had dominated in the South and in the West, they yielded much of the sport as it exploded in the North.  White riders dominated much of the big stakes in the Northeast during part of 1870’s and much of the 1880’s, as the Northern stables fielded only white jockeys and trainers. In fact, there has been no record of successful black trainers from the North (if there ever were any).  These white jockeys were mostly Englishmen such as George Barbee, Cyrus Holloway, George Evans, Lloyd Hughes, Billy Hayward, Bobby Swim, and Jimmy Rowe.  Barbee won the inaugural Preakness and went on to win on two other occasions.  He won the Belmont Stakes once and successive Travers.  Evans won at Belmont.  Billy Hayward won the 1868 Saratoga Cup Swim and Rowe each won twice at Belmont.  But then something happened in Kentucky.

Inaugural Kentucky Derby of 1875

TODAY WILL be historic in Kentucky annals as the first ‘Derby Day’ of what promises to be a long series of annual festivities, which we confidently expect our grandchildren a hundred years hence to celebrate in glorious centennial rejoicings”.. The Louisville Courier-Journal.

Cato and WagnerThe first big race in Kentucky, the 1939 Kentucky Sweepstakes was the occasion for the famous black jockey Cato riding Virginia's Wagner, to defeat white jockey Stephen Welch who rode the Kentucky-bred Grey Eagle.  Cato’s win had finally forced public recognition of the black jockeys and would force the Turf Register for the first time, to record the name of a black jockey as the winner in its charts.

With this Derby however, Kentucky had seemingly struck gold.  The organizers, realizing the long traditions of women supporting and betting on horseracing, created an event that celebrated beautiful women and beautiful horses.  It was often difficult to distinguish which was which in the coverage.  The Louisville Commercial declared,  “Kentucky is proverbial the world over for its beautiful women as well as fine horses.”  The Louisville Courier-Journal wallowed in its almost ‘francophilean’ absence of modesty on this day:  “It was made up of every element; but place aux dames et demoiselles before the pen shall treat of another feature… Blondes and brunes there were, stately beauties and petite, matrons and maids, in such bewildering number as to daze the eye, except that the cumulative effect was striking and even glorious to such a degree as may not be seen twice in a lifetime.  We dare assert that the most glowing description given to this feature of yesterday’s gathering cannot be too extravagant to adequately picture the panorama, constantly shifting with its varied and brilliant colors, during the five hours of the day.  There were a thousand women there, each exemplifying in her own enchanting face that, “Loveliness, ever in motion, which plays,” “Like the light upon Autumns soft shady days,” Now bare, and now there, giving warmth as if flies,” “From the lips to the cheeks, from the cheeks to the eyes.”

At the forefront of this horseracing event was the display of the women of Kentucky who loved the pomp and pageantry of horseracing as much as the men loved the fame and fortune to be realized.  Hotaling stated that for the state, it was a display of both unity and pride, which is key to a state identity that has lasted ever since, in that no other sporting event in America attracts as many women as the Kentucky Derby.  It has become the social event of the country.

The Derby was now the annual ball for the Kentucky belle, and it was no doubt America’s answer to Queen Anne’s 1711 edict and construction of the racecourse in Ascot Heath, which gave birth to the Royal Ascot.  The real Derby had occurred on the second day of race in Kentucky.  The crowd in attendance was said to have been 10,000.  The riders in accordance to top five finishes and ‘also rans’ were follows:

Place Horse Jockey Race
1st Aristides Oliver Lewis black
2nd Volcano Howard Williams black
3rd Verdigris Dick Chambers black
4th Bob Wooley William “Billy” Walker black
5th Ten Broeck Monroe Kelso black
'also ran' Enlister Cyrus Holloway white
'also ran' Grenoble James Carter black
'also ran' Bill Bruce M. Jones black
'also ran' Chesapeake William Henry black
'also ran' Searcher Raleigh Colston Jr. black
'also ran' Ascension William Lakefield white
'also ran' McCreery Dick Jones black
'also ran' Warsaw Peter Masterson black
'also ran' Vagabond James Houston black
'also ran' Gold Mine Cornelius Stradford black

In those days, corrupt aspects of horseracing mirrored the proper team sport practices of cycling.  An owner Oliver Lewiswith two horses in a race would instruct the rider of the weaker horse to wear-out the rivals by launching the race strong and leading out to a certain point where the stronger horse would then take over and finish off the race.  This corrupt practice, however, distorted the odds and enriched owners who profited heavily from side bets.  This would later lead to the establishment of the rule of 'Declaration to Win' in horseracing.  At the inaugural Derby, the owner of Aristides and Chesapeake had such strategy, much like cycling’s teamwork.  OLIVER LEWIS was to play the 'domestique' by leading out Aristides to the first half of the race, after which Chesapeake was to take over and finish off the track.  However, after leading out, Lewis could not see Chesapeake anywhere in sight, so the owner, Price McGrath, waved him on to go for the win and Oliver Lewis dashed under the finish line in record time.

Of the fifteen riders in the inaugural Kentucky Derby, thirteen were black jockeys, with a place in history for OLIVER LEWIS and Aristides, albeit just a footnote, where found.  3rd place finisher Dick Chambers also went on to win the Louisville Cup which was then part of the six day Derby event in Louisville.  After that event, both horse and trainer were toasted and bought in for ‘refreshments’ while the black jockey was excluded.  Hotaling cited a 'Mrs. Grundy’s Louisville letter' to The New York Graphic ‘regretfully’ stated, “The jockey who was as black as coal, should have come in for his share of refreshments,” an indication of Dick Chamber's exclusion.  As for Lewis, after a near win at Belmont that year, he was said to have become a bookmaker afterwards.  He effectively disappeared from racing and its spotlight, only to show up some thirty-two years later to watch the 1907 Derby.

But the Derby did give birth to, and reignited, the careers of other black jockeys, chief among them, 4th place finisher William “Billy” Walker.  Raleigh Colston jr. would go on to become a prominent trainer and owner of the 3rd place finisher in the 1911 Derby

Next: The Emergence of William “Billy” Walker

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 much of its history. 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 Hotaling's book, The Great Black Jockeys and The Library of Congress.)

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