Great African-American Jockeys In American Thoroughbred Racing
American sports, like most American institutions, has a history of shameful racism, and this includes Thoroughbred horse racing – as anyone who has scanned the insulting, stereotypical names of some racehorses of the 1920s will confirm. At the same time, one of the inspiring things about sports is that way that, at least some of the time, excellence triumphs even in the face of prejudice – and the history of American thoroughbred racing will bear that out, too.
The most storied race in American horse racing, the Kentucky Derby, is especially notable in its earlier years for its importance as a venue for African American jockeys. Here we take a look at some of history’s great African American jockeys.
The Kentucky Derby’s first winner, in fact, was an African American man, Oliver Lewis, riding Aristides to a two-length victory (and American mile-and-a-half record) that shocked onlookers. Aristides, after all, entered the race as a mere pacesetter for Chesapeake, a heavily favored stablemate who blew the race quicker than you can say “Dean scream.” This surprised both crowd and rider, who looked to the horse’s owner, H. P. McGrath for advice. McGrath yelled “Go on!” And so Lewis did.
Lewis’s contributions to the history of racing don’t end with his Derby victory (or his near-victory at Belmont later that year); in a time when ex-jockeys were still permitted to do so, he later worked for a bookmaker, developing a system for notating results of past races which clearly set the mold for the Daily Racing Form system.
Only next to the career of someone like Isaac Murphy could a pioneer like Lewis appear secondary. The son of a Civil War veteran who fought – and died – for the Union Army, Isaac Murphy won the Derby three times, two of them consecutive – riding Buchanan in 1884, Riley in 1890 and Kingman in 1891 – and was the first to achieve either feat. Another Murphy accomplishment – winning the Derby, Oaks and Clark Handicap all in one year, 1884 still has yet to be equaled. Sadly, this racing phenom died of pneumonia at the tragically early age of 35, in 1896.
Kansas City-born Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton won the 1892 Kentucky Derby by a nose, riding Azra. More impressively, Clayton was a minor – only fifteen – and relatively new to horse racing, having begun as an exercise rider in 1888 and won his first career victory in 1890. He rode in the Derby four times during his career, twice taking second and once winning third in addition to that storied 1892 victory. Other career highlights include an 1893 Churchill Downs crown and a third-place finish at Preakness in 1896.
In fact, a number of early Kentucky Derby winners were African American. Among them we find Erskine Henderson, riding Joe Cotton to the winner’s circle in 1885 after near-misses (on other horses) in the 1882 and 1883 Derbies (where he placed ninth and seventh). We also find Apollo’s rider in the 1882 Derby, Babe Hurd, a later star of the steeplechase, and, tragically, George Garret Lewis, whose victory riding Fonso in the 1880 Derby is no consolation for his death, two months later, from internal injuries caused by a month-old racing accident at the age, according to reports, of 18.
In fact, the roster of African American jockeys riding in the Kentucky Derby gets more impressive the longer we look at it. There’s Isaac Lewis, riding in every Derby from 1886 to 1889 including an 1887 victory aboard Montrose. That’s not the impressive part: later on the same day in 1887 he wins both heats of the Frank Fehr City Brewery Purse on a different horse, Brookful.
Finally, there’s Marlon St. Julien, who joined this esteemed list by riding in the 126th Kentucky Derby – after 79 years without an African American rider in America’s most famous race. The Lafayette, Louisiana rider got a late start in horse racing – he had been a footballer, perhaps the least likely former career of any jockey ever – but turned his interest to the sport after his eleventh-grade year. He emerged from a tragic five-horse accident which” among other things – broke his sternum to ride races all over American, including the 1997 inaugural season at Lone Star Park and at the Fair Grounds in Louisiana.