Great African-American Jockeys

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D.S. Williamson

July 10th, 2016

As Christopher Klein's excellent article, published on May 3, 2013 on History.com, states, African-American jockeys ruled the Kentucky Derby from the very first running in 1875 to 1902. Klein goes on to write that, "Jockeys were the very first African-American sports stars." Unfortunately, due to Jim Crow Laws coming into force and changing the times, white jockeys conspired to force trainers to take mounts away from black jockeys. Just like that, a burgeoning, already rich, history of African-American jockeys in thoroughbred racing disappeared. I think that it's time to look back on 5 of the greatest jockeys of all time who just happen to have been African-American.
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Isaac Burns Murphy, Jan. 1, 1861 - Feb. 12, 1896 -  Isaac Murphy is easily one of the greatest jockeys of all time. He dominated from 1879 to the early 1890's. Murphy rode in 11 Kentucky Derbies. He won 3 of those aboard Buchanan in 1884, Riley in 1890 and Kingman in 1891. He also won the Clark Handicap 4 times, the Travers Stakes once in 1879, the Kentucky Oaks in 1884 and the Suburban Handicap in 1890. Murphy had 530 wins from 1,538 rides. That's a 34% win percentage. Murphy was incredibly successful. He owned racehorses. He lived in a mansion. He was making $10,000 to $20,000 a year during the height of his career. He passed away much too young in 1896 due to heart failure.  

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James Winkfield, April 12, 1882 - March 23, 1974 - James Winkfield is the last African-American jockey to ride a winner in the Kentucky Derby. Like Murphy, who was the first jockey ever to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbies, Winkfield won 2 Run for the Roses in a row aboard His Eminence in 1901, at the age of 19, and Alan-a-Dale in 1902. Winkfield is pictured winning the Derby aboard Alan-a-Dale in the featured image of this post. In 1901, Winkfield won an incredible 220 races. In 1903, Winkfield emigrated to Russia where he competed in European races for Czar Nicholas II. He moved to France via Poland in 1920 after the Communists outlawed horse racing. Winkfield led 260 horses, fellow trainers and thoroughbred owners to Poland during the winter of 1920. He won the Prix du President de la Republique and the Grand Prix De Deauville in 1922. Winkfield never returned to the U.S. He passed away in France in 1974. 
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Oliver Lewis, 1856-1924 - 13 of the 15 jockeys in the very first Kentucky Derby in 1875 were African-American. Oliver Lewis road the 1875 winning horse, Aristides. His job, according to Blackpast.org, was to serve as Chesapeake's rabbit. It didn't work out that way as Lewis and Aristides took home the Roses in 1875. For unknown reasons, Lewis decided to retire from racing after 1875. No problem there. He became a legal bookmaker in Kentucky. Lewis was quite successful. He was successful enough to hand off the bookmaking business to his son James before his death in 1924.  
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Willie Simms, Jan. 16, 1870 - Feb. 26, 1927 - Willie Simms is the only African-American jockey to win all 3 legs of the Triple Crown. He won the Kentucky Derby in 1896 in the first Derby at 1 1/4 miles aboard Ben Brush. He won the Derby again in 1898 aboard Plaudit. Also in 1898, he won the Preakness Stakes aboard Sly Fox. He won the Belmont Stakes in 1893 aboard Comanche. In 1894, Simms won the Belmont Stakes again aboard Henry of Navarre. Henry of Navarre was Horse of the Year in 1894 and 1895. Simms is best known for introducing English riders to the short-stirrup style of which he was the best. He's also the first known American to ever win a race in England aboard an American horse.
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Alonzo Clayton, 1876 - March 17, 1917 - Clayton started riding at the age of 12. He followed in his older brother's footsteps by becoming a jockey. In 1892, at the age of 15, he won the Kentucky Derby aboard Azra. During his career, Clayton won the Champagne Stakes and Jerome Handicap in 1891 at the age of 14. He won the Clark Handicap twice, in 1892 and 1897. He also won the Tavers Stakes in 1892. He won the Kentucky Oaks twice in 1894 and 1895. Alonzo Clayton passed away in California in 1917 due to chronic pulmonary tuberculosis.