Fifteen of the first 28 Kentucky Derbys were won by African-American jockeys. They dominated the early years of Thoroughbred racing in the United States—and they were widely regarded as the best in the world.
African-Americans were racing horses in antebellum days. “Slaves were taking care of the horses in all facets, and that included being jockeys,” said Chris Goodlett, curator of collections at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville.
After the Civil War, Kentucky became the mecca of African-American jockeys, said Yvonne Giles, chairman of the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum, a black history and culture museum in Lexington. Jockeys from other states, like Willie Simms of Georgia, and Alonzo Clayton of Kansas, came to Kentucky to earn their reputations, she said.
Oliver Lewis (1856-1924) won the first Kentucky Derby astride Aristides in 1875. Billy Walker (1860-1933) won the Derby in 1877 when he was 17.
Willie Simms (1870-1927) won the Derby in 1896 and 1898, and is the only African-American jockey to win all three of the Triple Crown races.
Two jockeys won the Derby when they were only 15 years old. Alonzo Clayton (1876-1917) won the Kentucky Derby in 1892. James “Soup” Perkins (1880-1911), a Lexington native whose father and brothers were trainers, won the Derby in 1895.
James Winkfield (1882-1974) was a two-time Kentucky Derby winner, and later became a star jockey in Russia, Austria, and Germany. He retired from horse racing in 1930 after a career of 2,600 wins.
Isaac Murphy (1861-1896) is considered by many the best jockey of all time. During his career, he won 628 of his 1,412 starts—a winning percentage not equaled since. He won the Kentucky Derby three times, in 1884, 1890, and 1891.
Murphy never threw a race, even though the practice was not unheard of at the time, according to Philip von Borries, author of “RaceLens: Vintage Thoroughbred Racing Images.”
“He was known for his honesty,” he said. “If you put him up on a horse, he would do the best that he could to win.”
The Kentucky Derby Museum houses artifacts from Murphy’s career, including the silk purse from the 1891 Derby—literally the purse that contained the winnings for the race, said Goodlett.
Murphy, originally buried with his wife, Lucy, at the African Cemetery No. 2 in Lexington, was reinterred at the Kentucky Horse Park in the 1970s. His original tombstone is housed in the collection at the Kentucky Derby Museum. His wife’s remains are still in an unmarked grave at the African Cemetery No. 2.
In the early 20th century, racist threats and physical intimidation during races by white jockeys eventually drove African-American jockeys out of the sport. Some, like Winkfield, took their talents abroad.
“During the last part of the 1890s, there was much contention between the black and white jockeys,” said Giles, “and the racing industry became very dangerous for them.”
Goodlett said white jockeys would “ride rough,” pushing black jockeys and their horses against the rail during races. “When that starts to happen, trainers are reluctant to use African-American jockeys because they feel it’s a disadvantage to their horse,” he said.
The last African-American jockey to win the Kentucky Derby was Winkfield in 1902. In the year 2000, Marlon St. Julien became the first African-American jockey to race in the Kentucky Derby in 79 years.
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2016, which originally aired on May 2, 2015. Watch the full episode.