Collage of early Black participants in Kentucky Derby.

The Monumental Black Legacy in the Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby has become a mosaic of nationalities, from the spectators and their flamboyant hats to the jockeys mounted atop the three-year-old thoroughbreds racing the one-and-a-quarter-mile track. 

But it wasn’t always that way. While 13 of the 15 jockeys in the inaugural 1875 Kentucky Derby were Black, by 1921, African American jockeys would disappear from the scene. It would be nearly eight decades before Marlon St. Julien took to the saddle and placed seventh in the Kentucky Derby of 2000. 

What happened to the familiar faces of the early jockeys? And why did it take nearly 80 years before the world saw a return of Black jockeys?

Pioneers of the Derby

Racing was exceptionally popular in the southern states, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of the early jockeys were people slaves to those who owned the young horses. As such, they worked in the barns, cared for the horses, and cleaned the stalls. They became familiar and comfortable with the horses. Their expertise and skills on the ground made them the natural choice to saddle up at race time.

Dominance in the Early Years

  • Between 1875 and 1902, Black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derby races, showcasing their unmatched skill and dominance in the sport. Their success on the track laid the groundwork for the Derby's legacy as one of the most prestigious horse races in the world.

The First Kentucky Derby Winner

Jockey Oliver Lewis winner of first Kentucky Derby next to winning horse Aristides.
First Derby Winner Oliver Lewis. Image Credit: Public Domain.

No one knew it at the time, but Churchill Downs would become the pinnacle of thoroughbred racing across the country, with horses and jockeys from around the world. The first Kentucky Derby winner was African American jockey Oliver Lewis who rode Aristides to victory in the inaugural Kentucky Derby.

Two-Time Winner

Jimmy Winkfield, one of the most renowned Black jockeys, won the Kentucky Derby twice, in 1901 and 1902, making him one of only two Black jockeys to win the Derby multiple times. His remarkable achievements solidified his place in racing history and highlighted the talent and capability of Black riders.

Three-Time Winner

Isaac Murphy was born into slavery but is remembered as the first jockey—Black or White—to win the Derby three times.

Discrimination and Exclusion

1921 Kentucky derby black and white photo.
Image Credit: Library of Congress, Public Domain.

Despite their success, Black jockeys faced discrimination and exclusion from the sport. Segregation and racism in the early 20th century led to riders being forced out of the profession.

Violence on the Track

Physical violence toward Black jockeys became commonplace at the track. White jockeys frequently tried to run Black jockeys and their horses into the rails, posing a threat to the jockey and the horse. Because of the risks, owners were less likely to sign Black jockeys.

Forgotten Contributions

Our history isn’t always shining with pride. Jim Crow laws changed the face of America, pushing aside the legacies and memories of the contributions of Black citizens. Horse racing is no different. As segregation grew, Black jockeys disappeared and were relegated to return as slaves working the grounds.

Careers Continued Outside the United States

Two-time winner Jimmy Winkfield rode Alan-a-Dale to victory in 1902, becoming the second jockey to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbys. As segregation permeated the U.S., Winkfield and his family left for Europe, where he continued to ride until 1930.  

Nearly Excluded from Celebrations

Despite an invitation to pre-Derby celebrations in the 1960s by the National Turf Writers Association, Jimmy Winkfield and his daughter were denied entry. Segregation laws prohibited their entry, but after much discussion, they were later allowed inside.

A Return to the Derby

Marion St. Julien began his professional riding career in 1989 at Evangeline Downs, where he won his first race. After many successes, St. Julien became the first African-American jockey to compete in 79 years when he rode to a seventh-place finish in the 2000 Kentucky Derby. 

Minimal Presence Continues

Only three other Black jockeys have raced the Derby since 2000, including Kendrick Carmouche, who ended a seven-year gap in Black jockey presence in 2021.

Recognition

In recent years, there has been a growing acknowledgment of the importance of honoring and preserving the legacy of Black jockeys in horse racing. Initiatives like the Black Heritage in Racing Collection at the Kentucky Derby Museum are aimed at commemorating contributions and sharing stories that are essential for preserving racing’s heritage.