Black jockeys rode into history

Most horse racing fans are unaware of the legacy of African-American riders, who once ruled the tracks.

February 06, 2000|By Edward Hotaling

ABOVE THE clubhouse entrance to Pimlico Race Course, a huge wall sculpture, serving as a logo for the track, shows three mounted jockeys. But they're in silhouette, so the tens of thousands of people who walk under them every Preakness Day have no idea the middle rider was one of the many great black jockeys who once starred in America's first national pastime.

It would be nice if the sculpture could have clearly shown that black jockey, whose name was Will Walker, but who knew? The sculpture is based on a 19th-century engraving that depicted one of the most ballyhooed Baltimore sporting events of all time -- the U.S. House of Representatives adjourned for it -- but even that engraving showed the three jockeys as white.

The great black jockeys were not only ridden out of the sport about 100 years ago, but they were often sketched out, engraved out -- and eventually written out of American history.

It turns out African-Americans did not break into mainstream sports with Jackie Robinson in 1947, or even with catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker in Toledo in 1884. They didn't have to break into it. They were there from the start -- all the way from the early 1700s, more than a century before modern baseball had its modest beginnings around New York City.

The black jockeys, thousands of them, and a smaller number of white jockeys were our first pro athletes, along with the occasional boxer.

They were professionals in every sense. This was their job, they were in it full time, competing in uniform at the highest levels in a highly regulated, minutely recorded sport, for huge stakes and before giant crowds. This African-American majority -- the black jockeys, and the black trainers, too -- helped invent our wildly popular first national pastime and, because we are talking about sports-crazy America, our way of life.

Here are just a few of them:

An economy-sized Michael Jordan, the Colonial jock Austin Curtis posed a dual threat of physical and financial wizardry. One morning, he dangerously dangled his foot to throw off another jockey and won 147,000 pounds of tobacco in front of what was called the biggest crowd in America before, and for two decades after, the Revolution.

He made his employer, Willie Jones, a founder of North Carolina, the most successful stable owner in the land. Emancipated for protecting Jones against British raiders, Curtis became a top trainer, celebrated from the Roanoke to Tennessee's Cumberland Valley.

The jockey, called Simon, was the Dennis Rodman of his day. I found it impossible at first to get my mind around his incredible story, for it began with his arrival in slavery in South Carolina and soon found him performing from Charleston to Natchez on the Mississippi. He wound up in Nashville, renowned for a rapier wit that lacerated Tennessee's high and mighty, including Gen. Andrew Jackson. From 1811 through 1815, aboard the mare Haney's Maria, Simon defeated every horse and jockey Jackson could throw at him, sending Old Hickory into cyclonic rages.

One day, the 6-foot-1-inch general publicly issued an order to the 4-foot-6-inch jockey.

"Now, Simon, when my horse comes up and is about to pass you, don't spit your tobacco juice in his eyes, and in the eyes of the rider, as you sometimes do," said the future president, as quoted by a friend.

"Well, General," said Simon, dripping sarcasm, "I've rode a good deal agin your horses, but . . . none were ever near enough to catch my spit."

Jackson's stable

After he became president, Jackson had a slave jockey on his side. The last time I checked, nobody working for President Clinton knew that the White House was once a full-fledged professional sports organization, a racing stable created by Jackson. It was no small thing, either. Jackson not only brought a few of his family's thoroughbreds up from the Hermitage, his Tennessee homestead, along with slave jockeys, but he also stabled friends' steeds at "The President's House." They went after stakes money in Washington, Baltimore and Timonium. The painter Edward Troye left us images of such terrific antebellum jockeys as Ben, who rode for future Virginia Rep. John Minor Botts, and Lew, a top Kentucky jockey.

Many were born leaders. Charles Stewart traveled from Virginia to Kentucky to run a breeding operation, then managed the leading training stable in southwest Louisiana, all while trapped in slavery.

The first black athlete to be recognized repeatedly in the American national press (while boxer Tom Molineaux pursued his career in England) was the slave Cornelius.

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