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Rich history in recovery Black jockeys: After more than 100 years of being written out of horse racing's past, African- American riders are finally being recognized for their contributions.

May 14, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Today, John Ball, assistant director of the Jockey Guild's communications department, said he isn't sure how many African-American jockeys are racing. He pulls out the Guild's yearbook and begins looking at the pictures. He counts 15 dark-skinned riders who might be African-American, Caribbean or Hispanic.

"We don't look at jockeys as being black or white," Ball said. "I can't go to my computer and punch that up."

When racing came into prominence after the Civil War, many horse owners used their former slaves as jockeys, and many ex-slaves had gravitated to the sport because they were familiar and comfortable with the animals.

When the Jim Crow laws came into existence, Hotaling said, black jockeys were forced out of flat track racing. Some continued to race the more dangerous steeplechase circuits, but by 1911, they were mostly gone.

How were they forced out? Take the case of Jimmy Winkfield.

In 1899, he won 39 races, an impressive total for those days. But in 1900, he was run into the rail in Chicago during a "jockey war" between whites and blacks. Winkfield did win back-to-back Derbys in 1901 and 1902, but when he came back to try for three in a row in 1903, race starter Jake Holtman yelled racist comments at him, and when he lost the race, he heard such talk more often. Finally, when he received threats from the Ku Klux Klan, he left the United States for Russia, where he is said to have ridden for the czar.

Until this past year, it was believed that the last black jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby was Jess "Longshot" Conley in 1911. But researchers at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville have discovered that the Henry King who rode Planet in 1921 was also black.

"But that was a rarity," Hotaling said. "If people see that and think black jockeys competed into the 1920s alongside white riders, that's just not true. By 1910, they were all but gone."

The last black jockey to ride in the Preakness was Simms, the year he won, in 1898. And the last black jockey to ride in the Belmont was Jimmy Lee in 1908.

"I don't know why there aren't more black jockeys," said Dale Mills, the trainer, but he does have his suspicions.

"Occasionally, a black kid will come around and ask me how to get started as a jockey," Mills said. "But I have no avenue to send them to. I was lucky. My uncle had a farm, and that's how I learned to ride. A young black kid can't just walk on to the track and ask to learn on an expensive horse."

And, Mills added, a rider has to go through so much to get hired.

"It's not like becoming an auto mechanic, where you go to school, learn the parts and, boom, you can fix cars," Mills said. "In this business, you have to start at the bottom, work your way up. Pay your dues. A lot of kids won't stick it out."

Candace Perry, curator at the Derby Museum, backs up Mills. "Would-be jockeys have to start at the bottom, working in barns," she said. "It takes somebody who loves horses."

Mills said there could be another reason, too.

"Getting owners who are white to give their horses to a black trainer is hard unless you have someone to speak up for you," said Mills, who trains for one black owner, J. D. Brown, and one white owner, Kenneth Geary. "I think that's probably true for black jockeys, too."

Whatever the reasons, no black jockey currently rides in major stakes races in this country.

"Black jockeys are there in old pictures, with no mention that they're black," Hotaling said. "Their history is there. It's wide-open, so much remaining to be discovered. It's nice to bring them back in and give them their due."

Pub Date: 5/14/97

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