Horse racing isn’t a sport that is typically associated with African American athletes. Yet, African Americans won over half of the first 28 Kentucky Derbies, during a thrilling period in the sport’s history in which these riders dominated the big races in the US.
The very first Kentucky Derby in 1875 had 15 horses taking part, and 13 of them were ridden by African Americans. If we look back to those days, we can see some exciting tales of hugely successful African American jockeys that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Commonly known as Jimmy, Winkfield was born in Kentucky in the early 1880s, one of 17 children of a Civil War veteran. His place in the history books now is partly down to his status as the last African American to ride a horse to a win in the Kentucky Derby.
His career started slowly, as he was suspended for four years after being involved in a major accident in his first race. Things improved when he finished third in the 1900 Kentucky Derby. He then went on to win this hugely important race in both 1901 and 1902.
These weren’t just lucky races, as Winkfield had proved to be a terrific jockey in many other races. During 1901, he rode 220 winners. His last Kentucky Derby was in 1903, when he came home in second place.
However, Winkfield’s illustrious career continued with a move to Russia. There, he won numerous big races such as the Russian Oaks and the Russian Derby. He finished his career in Paris, where he added the likes of the Prix du Président de la République to the estimated 2,500 winners that he had ridden.
The jockey got inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2004, while the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes event is named after him.
While Jimmy Winkfield won an astonishing number of races during a long career, there is another African American jockey with an unbeatable win rate. Isaac Murphy’s career ended just as Winkfield’s was beginning and he is also considered one of the most influential riders in American thoroughbred horse racing history.
Murphy is now most famous for winning three Kentucky Derbies out of 11 attempts. His victories came on Buchanan in 1884, Riley in 1890, and Kingman in 1891. These days, the current Kentucky Derby odds in Twinspires.com suggest that Charlatan and Tiz the Law are favorites to win in 2020.
He is also the only jockey to have won the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Clark Handicap in the same year. The year in which he achieved this remarkable feat was 1884.
Yet, the most intriguing legacy of this jockey was his win rate. Murphy estimated that he won 44% of his races. Although official figures make his record a slightly lower 34%, it is still a win rate that is unlikely to ever be beaten.
Murphy was the very first jockey to be inducted when the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame was created in 1955. He is also said to have been the first millionaire black athlete in history.
As mentioned earlier, the inaugural Kentucky Derby saw 13 African American jockeys take part. Out of that group, it was Oliver Lewis who would make history by winning this event.
He did so in great style, romping home by a couple of lengths and setting a new American record time for running a mile and a half race. This victory was achieved on Aristides, and the pair rode together to second place in the Belmont Stakes too.
Lewis was born in Kentucky in 1856 and the Oliver Lewis Way in Lexington, Kentucky pays homage to him.