The Early Success of Black Jockeys in the Kentucky Derby

In a few months, the eyes of the racing world will shift to Louisville, for the Kentucky Derby. While people from all walks of life have tasted glory over the race’s 146-year history, the first few decades of the race were dominated by African-American riders.

For the first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, thirteen of the fifteen horses in the race were ridden by black jockeys. The winner, Aristides, was a rank outsider ridden by 19-year-old Oliver Lewis. Aristides’s trainer, Ansel Williamson, was a former slave. He went on to win that year’s Belmont Stakes with Calvin, and was inducted into the racing Hall of Fame in 1998.

Isaac Murphy, perhaps the top jockey of his time, won the Derby three times. He first scored with Buchanan in 1884. He then became the first jockey to win the race in back-to-back years, with Riley in 1890 and Kingman in 1891. In his relatively brief career, Murphy won 530 races from 1,538 mounts, good for a strike rate of 34%. For his accomplishments, Murphy was part of the inaugural class of the racing Hall of Fame in 1955.

Following Murphy’s triumph in 1891, Lonnie Clayton set a record that will never be broken, as he became the youngest jockey ever to win the Derby. The 15-year-old won with Azra, who went on to win the Travers Stakes that year. Clayton was one of the top riders on the east coast in the 1890s, with 24 stakes wins in his brief career.

Clayton’s win was followed by scores by Soup Perkins in 1895, and Willie Sims in 1896 and 1898. The last black jockey to win the Derby to date was Jimmy Winkfield. Like Murphy a decade before him, Winkfield won the race in back-to-back years, scoring with His Eminence in 1901 and Alan-a-Dale in 1902.

While Winkfield spent a few good years in the United States, his greatest riding success came in Europe. As segregation made its way into the American racing industry in the mid-1900s, Winkfield relocated to Russia, where he won some of the country’s most prestigious races multiple times. In 1917, he moved to France, riding there until his retirement in 1932.

Tragically, in the early 1900's, the racism present in many areas of the United States crept into the world of racing. This had a devastating effect on Black Jockeys around the country. In fact, due to discrimination, since 1921 only two black jockeys have competed in the Derby (Marlon St. Julien rode Curule to a seventh-place finish in 2000, while Kevin Krigger finished seventeenth aboard Goldencents in 2013). We encourage you to review THIS ARTICLE for a more in-depth look at this unfortunate part of racing history.