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Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Sport of Kings and a Select Few African Americans

Thoroughbred horse breeding and racing in its modern form has a long history dating back to 17th century England and is inextricably linked with American history. Thoroughbred racing developed in all the British Colonies, Europe, Argentina, Japan. All modern Thoroughbred stallions can trace their lineage to three horses brought to England from the Middle East. Thoroughbred mares are traced back to Northern Europe and the Middle East.

Oliver Lewis 1856-1924
So, how are African Americans involved in this illustrious history? Maryland and Virginia were the centers of thoroughbred breeding in the American Colonies, as well as South Carolina and New York. Horse racing in New York goes back to 1665. After the American Revolution, Kentucky and Tennessee became the centers of activity. Except for New York, all the other states were slave-holding states. Enslaved Africans and their descendants were central to the business of thoroughbred horse breeding and then later in the racing industry as well. Enslaved workers were skilled riders, grooms, and trainers on the plantations. As a result, they were dominant as jockeys: in the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, thirteen of the fifteen jockeys were black and the race was one black jockey Oliver Lewis riding Aristides, the horse trained by former enslaved Ansel Williamson. African American jockeys won 15 out of the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby. Two years after Oliver, the race was claimed by seventeen year-old William WalkerIsaac Murphy, the son of a formerly enslaved man, is considered the greatest American jockey in history. Murphy rode 628 winners of his 1412 mounts. He won the Kentucky Derby three times, the American Derby four, and the Latonia Derby five times. Four more black jockeys would win fame at the Kentucky Derby: Alonzo "Lonnie" Clayton (at 15, the youngest to ever win), James "Soup" Perkins, Willie Simms, and Jimmy "Wink" Winkfield. Winkfield would be the last African American to ride in the Kentucky Derby. Murphy, Simms, and Winkfield have been inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Isaac Burns Murphy 1861-1896

This dominance of black jockeys in thoroughbred racing did not last. By 1921, there were no blacks racing at all. The rising tide of institutional racism, cemented by Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896, the demands by white jockeys in New York to eliminate black jockeys from the circuit, and the rise of Jim Crow meant that by 1904, virtually no black jockeys were racing. Many black jockeys left the American circuits to race in Europe (particularly Germany, France, and Poland) and Russia. The history of blacks in thoroughbred racing seemed to come to an end. As time went on, with the connection to the past broken blacks were rare in any segment of the racing industry, with Latino jockeys taking precedent.

At the 139th Kentucky Derby in 2013, St. Croix native Kevin Krigger was the second black jockey to race in 92 years. The first had been Marlon St, Julien in 2000. On Martin Luther King Jr's Birthday January, 2017, there was a rare occurrence: the winner of the feature race at Aqueduct in Queens, New York, was Green Gatto owned by brothers Gaston (trainer) and Anthony Grant, ridden by jockey Kendrick Carmouche, with the placing judge who presented the trophy being Sentell Taylor, Jr: all of these men are black. Whether this is a harbinger of a greater involvement of African Americans in the sport remains to be seen.

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