Although not as prominent in horse racing today, African-American jockeys dominated the field at the dawn of the Kentucky Derby. In fact, as documented on Churchill Downs’ African Americans in the Derby web page, 15 of the first 28 Derbys were won by black horsemen. The first was Oliver Lewis, who guided Aristides to victory in the inaugural running. Of the 15 riders in that 1875 race, 13 were African Americans.
Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton and James Perkins are the two youngest jockeys ever to win the Kentucky Derby. They were both 15. And Hall of Fame jockey Willie Simms rode in the Derby twice—and won both times! He’s also the only black rider to win each of the Triple Crown races. At the turn of the century, Simms also rode in England.
But the most noted of African-American jockeys are probably Isaac Murphy and James Winkfield.
The Kentucky-born Murphy was the first jockey inducted into the Jockey Hall of Fame. Considered by many to be the greatest jockey of all time, he was the first to sweep three Kentucky Derbys. Overall, he won 44% of his more than 1,400 races, a record that has never been beaten.
Winkfield, also a Kentucky native, won the 1902 Derby—the last for a black rider. He later had a distinguished career in Europe, even riding for the czar of Russia.
More facts about these prominent black jockeys and others:
- Lewis won three races during Churchill’s inaugural meet, making him the leading rider. After his 1875 victory, he never rode in another Kentucky Derby.
- Clayton also won the Kentucky Oaks twice and earned the Churchill Downs jockey crown during the 1893 fall meet.
- Simms was the first American jockey to win a race with an American horse at an English race course and is credited with introducing the short-stirrup riding style to England in the 1890s.
- Jockey William Walker (who won the Derby aboard Baden Baden in 1877) saw every Kentucky Derby, 59 straight, until his death on September 20, 1933. He is buried in Louisville Cemetery. During Derby Week in 1996, Churchill Downs placed a headstone detailing Walker’s career at the previously unmarked grave.
- In 2000, Marlon St. Julien became the first black jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby in 79 years and the first to ride in the Oaks in 103 years.
- On June 25, 1980, the 11 African-American jockeys who rode a total of 15 Derby winners between 1875 and 1902 were honored by the NAACP and the Lincoln Foundation. A plaque commemorating the occasion is now in the Kentucky Derby Museum.
- Program 124
- Native son and radio personality Bob Edwards; the Frazier International History Museum; a local story of escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad; a history of black jockeys; and an interview with John Asher, vice president of communications at Churchill Downs. (#124)