A naught‘s a naught/And a figger a figger/All for the white man/And none for the nigger.
— from a “widely circulated ditty,” circa 1890
General Ulysses S. Grant was in the stands. And so was William “Boss” Tweed. They were joined by some 25,000 other hyped-up horse-racing fans for the September 25, 1866, opening of New York’s lavish new Jerome Park, close to what is now the Bronx’s Jerome Reservoir. The key race of the day pitted two of the nation’s best-known
athletes— Gilbert Watson Patrick in the saddle against Abe Hawkins. As The New York Times reported on that day’s turf war, “Sweeping round the foot of the bluff on which the Club House is situated, the horses were lost to sight. . . . Abe, on the favorite, now began to creep up, but reserved his final effort until they had fairly entered the straight, when he shot past his horses [and won].”
While that may sound like nothing more than a colorful anecdote from the annals of equine racing, the match was colorful in a way that might shock many American sports fans. You see, Abe Hawkins was black. And he had been a slave. And he was very famous, and well respected, and paid handsomely, and praised in the press for his galloping ways. The Times described him as “that consummate artist in the saddle.” That’s right, Hawkins was a professional athlete, competing consistently against whites like Patrick nearly a century before Jackie Robinson ever cut into the Major League’s all-white diamond.
And Abe Hawkins wasn’t the only successful black jockey at a time when horse racing was the nation’s most popular spectator sport. In fact, as Edward Hotaling explains in his new book, The Great Black Jockeys: The Lives and Times of the Men Who Dominated America’s First National Sport, Hawkins was just one of many African Americans to ride to glory. Hugely popular, horse racing was America’s initial national pastime, attracting hundreds of thousands of fans in the preCivil War era. Major racecourses dotted the nation, including three in Manhattan alone by the 1770s. The majority of the thousands of professional jockeys were black, including Oliver Lewis, who won the first Kentucky Derby in 1875.
Hotaling, a writer and producer at Washington, D.C.’s NBC affiliate and a former Voice contributor, broke the controversial Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder story in 1988 that got the television personality fired for his boneheaded racial remarks. Hotaling discovered the events for his latest work while researching his book on the history of American racing, They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga.
“What I ended up finding was that black jockeys had been prominent in American racing from way before George Washington’s time, from the early 1700s,” Hotaling recently told the Voice. “I was led to the conclusion that, although millions of Americans know nothing about it, African Americans were our first professional athletes.”
The image most of us have of slavery, and rightfully so, is of a brutal, inhumane system. Therefore, perhaps Hotaling’s most striking discovery is that many slave jockeys were able to circumnavigate some of that system’s horrors because of their skills as riders. For example, exceptional black jockeys were able to travel— alone— from state to state for races at a time when slaves in general were not allowed even to cross state lines.
The athletic skills and celebrity status of these black jockeys also gave them amazing freedom in how they could conduct themselves. One of the great rivalries in horse racing in the early 1800s was between the horses of future president General Andrew Jackson and those ridden by the widely renowned jockey known only as Simon, a diminutive slave with a “hunch back.” In nine races against Jackson’s horses, the feisty Simon won eight times (the other was a forfeit). After one drubbing, the jockey bumped into a dejected Jackson and verbally assaulted Old Hickory.
“Gineral,” he said, “you were always ugly, but now you’re a show. I could make a fortune by showing you as you now look, if I had you in a cage where you could not hurt the people who came to look at you.” As Hotaling writes of the incident, “Of all the characters peopling the Jackson biographies, the jockey, protected by his talent and his handicap, is one of the very few who ever talked back to him.”
While Hotaling hopes his book helps to honor these forgotten black athletes, he also hopes it will inspire young African Americans to reenter a sport that hasn’t seen a black jockey win a major race in more than nine decades. Perhaps the most talented African American currently competing is 26-year-old Marlon St. Julien, who believes he has what it takes to one day ride in the Kentucky Derby.
A polite and determined young man, St. Julien says he is inspired by the exploits of the great black jockeys, but adds that it is not important to emphasize his color. “I just want to be considered as a jockey, not a black jockey or a white jockey,” he explains. “But [their stories] make me strive harder.”
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.
“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.”