Each year, along with hat shopping, forecast watching, and amateur handicapping, the Kentucky Derby brings with it a sense of the state’s rich history. But whose history is it?
Today’s thoroughbreds are piloted around the racetrack by jockeys who are mostly white and Latino. But in the early days of racing, black jockeys dominated.
In fact, in the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875, only one rider was white. That race was won by Aristides, ridden by Oliver Lewis.
But the decline of black jockeys in the Derby and the rest of thoroughbred racing is intricately tied to the history of race and economics in the U.S., experts said.
The early dominance of black jockeys was a result of Antebellum customs. In the time of slavery, enslaved people were often the caretakers of horses on plantations, said Teresa Genaro, freelance turf writer and founder of Brooklyn Backstretch.
“What happened was that you had generation after generation of young black men who grew up around horses and grew up riding horses,” she said.
“The white plantation owners and white slave owners put people that they really trusted in charge of their horses, because their horses are obviously expensive, and necessary to the success of their plantations.”
Decades after the end of slavery, black jockeys remained prominent in racing, riding 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derby winners. Some became widely celebrated, including Isaac Burns Murphy and James “Jimmy” Winkfield.
But the economic aftermath of the Civil War in the South, and the abolition of slavery, changed the lives of black jockeys.