Black in the Saddle

The great African American jockeys are riding back into history

So if black jockeys were such a powerful, dominant force in horse racing for so long, the obvious question becomes, what happened? The last time a black jockey won a major stakes race was 1908, when Jimmy Lee took the Travers at Saratoga. Why were black jockeys run out of the sport in the early 1900s? It's like the song says: Money changes everything.

One of the great black jockeys affected by the changing times was Jimmy Winkfield. Only the second rider ever to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbies, he later left the United States for a stellar international career, becoming Russian national champion in 1904. According to Winkfield, who died in 1974, "In the old days, where if you ran 12 horses, from six to eight of the jockeys were always black. And it remained that way until more money got in the game. Now, then, when a lot of money got in the game, the white men then, like they do now and like they've always been, wanted his people to have, not only the money, but also the reputation."

For Hotaling, perhaps even worse than their being evicted from the sport is the fact that the great black jockeys have also been forgotten. Currently, there are only two black jockeys in the Horse Racing Hall of Fame— Ike Murphy, the first rider to claim back-to-back Kentucky Derbies (1890­91), and Willie Simms, national riding champion in 1893 and 1894— but Hotaling hopes his new research and documentation will change that.

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"Of the thousands of black jockeys who rode before the Civil War, most of whom began as slaves, not a single one is in the Hall of Fame," he says. "For years, I've been calling for Abe Hawkins to be in the hall. And many others should be in."

The only fair way to right this injustice, Hotaling believes, would be to bring several black riders into the shrine en masse. However, the Hall of Fame seems to be taking a not-so-fast approach to that idea. "I don't have any particular interest in bringing in anybody en masse," Edward Bowen, chairman of the Hall of Fame nominating committee, told the Voice. "I would be stunned if we came up with any situation [like that], regardless of whether they were African American or not. To me if you bring a bunch in en masse, that diminishes the importance of each one."

Even if the hall is not expeditious in inducting a number of the great black jockeys, Hotaling's book itself is bringing these stories to light, which is a source of great pride for the descendants of these riders. It is also a source of some anger and frustration.

"There is a lot of hidden racism in this country, and that story just hasn't been told like it should have been," says Douglas Smith, the great-great-great-nephew of Jimmy Winkfield. "It's just another film that hasn't been processed yet. I'm learning each and every day about the things we didn't know about the greatness of the contributions of African Americans, or should I say blacks, have made to the United States. It's unbelievable."

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