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But First They Were Black

Updated: May 3

Honoring the Jockeys Who Put Derby on the Map


By Julie Wilson

May 2, 2024


Portraits of Black Jockeys, an exhibition by artist/architect Eugene Poole. These handsewn portraits used pieces of fabric and quilting techniques to capture the likeness of all 15 of the jockeys who won the first 28 Kentucky Derbies.

If you’re in Kentucky this time of year, odds are some semblance of the Kentucky Derby has crossed your path by now. For a race with the tagline “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports,” we sure are inundated with days of pompous circumstance well before a horse has seen the track.

 

But that’s Kentucky for you – a state that wears the costume of Southern gentility when it’s convenient. And as any true Southerner knows, one does not talk about the seedy underbelly of the day, nor the events that got us here, in mixed company. Hell, we don’t even celebrate the wins if the optics surrounding them aren’t all neatly packaged.

 

Luckily, I am not Southern. I’m not even a Kentucky native. So here we go.

 

 

There have been many wins in Kentucky Derby history that you may not know much about, including the first win. This year, the Kentucky Derby celebrates its 150th Run for the Roses. Yet how many of us can name that first Derby winner?

 

No, not the horse. The man. The jockey who rode Aristides to victory in 1875.

 

His name was Oliver Lewis. Some may know him by way of the street named after him in Lexington, Ky. And the curious will have discovered why he was bestowed this honor in 2010.

 

Mr. Lewis was the famed jockey who won the very first Kentucky Derby on May 17, 1875, at age 19. What’s even more impressive is that during that era, horses weren’t usually broken in before introduced to the jockey. So, Lewis took Aristides from wild 3-year-old thoroughbred to the first Derby winner, which by all accounts was a dangerous undertaking.


But why risk your jockey’s safety?

 

Because Lewis was a Black man. He was under the employ of horse owner H. Price McGrath and told to ride Aristides, the second of two horses entered into the Derby by this owner; the other being Chesapeake who was actually the favorite, meaning Lewis wasn’t supposed to win!

 

(I admit, I just love that part of his story. “Sure, I’ll ride your horse for you. But if Aristides makes strides to win, who am I to slow him down?”)


But what’s even more impressive is that of the 15 total jockeys running the first Derby that day, 13 of them were Black. And there were many more to race in the Derby after that inaugural year. In fact, Black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 Derbies. To see for yourself, click this link.

 

Sorry, that was a cruel ploy; it's not a real link. My point being that I searched for hours trying to find an exhaustive online list of all the Black jockeys who ever ran in the Derby yet came up with only fragments. But why?


Perhaps because most were enslaved men riding for their enslavers (masters of none). They put Black men in the saddle but kept the Winner’s Circle all to themselves.

 

You’d think the Kentucky Derby Museum website would be the best place to start for such a registry. And while they have ramped up their awareness with this exhibit, only a handful of names were listed (“some of the legends” as the website states).

They put Black men in the saddle but kept the Winner’s Circle all to themselves.

Is it too much to ask to list every single Black jockey who busted their ass to ride in this race with no blanket of roses waiting for them at the finish line? I mean, I searched for “female jockeys” and results populated in 3.5 seconds. Mind you, there aren’t as many, but really, that validates my point. Web real estate is endless, so list them all!

 

The sport’s Black jockeys have been honored in other ways. Some 135 years later, Mr. Lewis got his accolades with the aforementioned street. Since then, the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden was developed in honor of the three-time Derby winner in the East End of Lexington on the grounds where his house once stood. Mr. Murphy, who rode in a total of 11 Derbies, won 44% of all races he entered, a record he still holds to this day.

 

 

On April 24, I had the pleasure of attending an exclusive first look at an art exhibit celebrating the rich history of Black jockeys in the Kentucky Derby. Held at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, we heard from Yvonne Giles, the author of Stilled Voices Yet Speak, a history of African Cemetery No. 2 that’s located in Lexington. (Jockeys James “Soup” Perkins and Oliver Lewis are buried there.) We were also honored to be in the presence of some of the descendants of Oliver Lewis who came to share in the celebration.

 

Row after row, piece after piece, a white cloth was pulled down to reveal yet another portrait constructed by Eugene Poole, a native of Hopkinsville, Ky., and graduate of the University of Kentucky School of Architecture. As a career, Poole has earned the title of Architect of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.


Man next to colorful tapestry.
Eugene Poole gives an artist's talk at the opening of his exhibit at the Kentucky Derby Museum.

But today, he not only bears the designation of artist but also as steward of the stories each of these pioneering Black men have to tell. Nearly vanished from history – our collective American history, not just Black history – the narratives of each of these Black jockeys are esteemed in their own right. But emblazoned on the colorful fabrics handsewn by Poole during the downtime of Covid, they bring an energy, a vibrance that captures not only the legacy but the pride rightfully earned by their talent.


Each unique visage is marked with a noticeable glean in their eyes, one that gets brighter with each viewing from passersby. Their history becoming more tangible, their status more palpable as we turn back the clock on their erasure.

Poole not only bears the designation of artist but also as steward of the stories each of these pioneering Black men have to tell.

Stay tuned: Check back here for dates/locations on where to see the exhibit of the Black jockeys by Eugene Poole.


 

 

Black Jockeys of the Derby

Apologies that this is not a complete online list of names of Black jockeys who ran in Derbies past, but it’s the most we could find. If you know of others, please share and we will continue to update. However, Keeneland Library in Lexington, Ky., has an extensive collection of reference material and is open to the public 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., M-F.

 

Shelby Barnes

Edward Dudley Brown

James Carter

Dick Chambers

Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton – (the youngest to win the Derby, 15 years old in 1892)

Raleigh Colston Jr.

Jess Conley (1911)

Anthony Hamilton

Erskine “Babe” Henderson

William Henry

James Houston

“Babe” Hurd

Dick Jones

M. Jones

Monroe Kelso

Henry King (1921)

Jimmy Lee

George Garrett Lewis

Isaac Lewis

*Oliver Lewis

Peter Masterson

**Isaac Murphy

*James “Soup” Perkins (1895)

Willie Simms (1896, 1898)

Cornelius Stradford

William Walker (1877)

Howard Williams

James “Wink” Winkfield – (1901, and last Black jockey to win, in 1902)

 

  • Names in bold were jockeys in the first Kentucky Derby in 1875

  • Dates in parentheses note the known year they won the Derby

  • * Buried at African Cemetery No. 2 in Lexington

  • **Formerly at African Cemetery No. 2, now at Kentucky Horse Park

 

Editor's note: While this article specifically focuses on Black jockeys who raced in the Kentucky Derby, I wanted to spotlight the work of Phoenix Rising Lexington. This community-based nonprofit celebrates the history of the East End of Lexington, home to the former Kentucky Association Racetrack and several of the jockeys listed above.

 

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