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Painting of Black jockeys in the background horses running towards them in the foreground

Uncovering the Black History of Horse Racing

I am not a follower of the Kentucky Derby or any horse race for that matter. I do like the sight of a beautiful horse, especially a black one! And that, I’m afraid, is where my interest in horses ends. However, I do have a vested interest in Black people’s role and contribution to American history. Early last week, I was watching the news on TV. My ears suddenly perked up when the announcer said that a Black man named Kendrick Carmouche will be racing in the 2021 Kentucky Derby!

The Associated Press reported that Carmouche is the first Black jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby since 2013 and one of just a handful in the past century. The report flashed back to the history of Black Americans and the Kentucky Derby. His presence in horse racing’s biggest event is a reminder of how Black jockeys have all but disappeared from the sport since the early 20th century. If you are familiar with my many posts, you know how I love to dig into the soils of Black history to uncover what white history has tried so hard to ignore or simply erase.

You can’t talk about Carmouche without hailing those that paved the way for him. Long before Carmouche started riding horses growing up in Louisiana, Black jockeys were synonymous with the sport. So, let’s take our reins in hand and ride through the legacy of Black Jockeys!

Black Horsemen

Black horsemen played a vital role in shaping early American turf history, and the Kentucky Derby is no exception. The history of the Kentucky Derby and Black horsemen are intertwined. The Derby and Churchill Downs owe a great deal to those who helped shape America’s greatest race. From the beginning of the sport in the United States, and particularly from the early 19th century, Black Americans have made significant contributions to horse racing. The early dominance of Black jockeys was a result of Antebellum customs. In the time of slavery, enslaved people were often the caretakers of horses on plantations, said Teresa Genaro, freelance turf writer and founder of Brooklyn Backstretch.

During these times, “you had generation after generation of young Black men who grew up around horses and grew up riding horses,” she said. And wouldn’t you know it, because their horses were expensive (probably thought by the white man to be worth more than their slaves), the plantation and slave owners put those they trusted in charge of their horses. They not only cared for the horses, train the horses, but they also eventually rode them in races. The horses were necessary to the success of their plantations. History showed us that slaves were necessary to success as well. Just saying.

On May 17, 1875, just a decade after the Civil War ended and horse racing had become popular, 15 jockeys raced around Churchill Downs’ track during the inaugural Kentucky Derby. Thirteen of those 15 riders were Black. The winning jockey aboard Aristides, Oliver Lewis, was the first winning Black American jockey in the first Kentucky Derby. Fifteen of the first 28 editions of the Derby races were won by Black jockeys. Isaac Murphy was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times.  I should note that Murphy was the first Black jockey to be inducted into the Thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame, in 1955.

The First Hurdle in the Race Ends

A combination of Jim Crow laws and segregation in the U.S., intimidation by white riders, and decisions by racing officials, owners, and trainers led to the decline of Black jockeys that have never recovered. In 1900, the white jockeys banded together to sabotage Black riders and keep them off the tracks. White jockeys would often force Black riders to have accidents by literally boxing them in and forcing them to crash into other horses or the rails. They would beat the Black jockeys with their whips during the race causing them to fall off their horses. Black jockeys would become critically injured or even killed because of the actions of the white jockeys. You see, atrocities against Black people were always prevalent.

Willie Simms is the only Black jockey to win the Triple Crown, but even he couldn’t race because of the systemic racism. Even the horseshoes, seen as a symbol of good luck couldn’t block the abuse Black people endured, even then. Oh, how deep the scars! The Black presence at the Kentucky Derby came to an end because of racism which was allowed at Church Hill Downs.

And They’re Off!

That was then, this is now. Everything has changed since Carmouche is now one of the few remaining Black jockeys in the U.S. Much like Marlon-St-Julien in 2000, Patrick Husbands in 2006, and Kevin Krigger, in 2013 who made history, being the first jockey from the Virgin Islands to score a mount in the Kentucky Derby. Carmouche’s presence in horse racing’s biggest event is a reminder of how the industry marginalized Black jockeys to the point they all but disappeared from the sport.

The 2021 Kentucky Derby was the 147th running that took place on May 1, 2021, in Louisville, Kentucky. Bourbonic, Carmouche’s first Kentucky Derby mount, was a longshot to win the garland of roses. According to the Washington Informer newspaper, Carmouche rode more than just Bourbonic, slotted in the number 20 position of a 20-horse field. He shadowed the 102-year-old ghost of Jimmy Winkfield, the last Black American to win the Run for the Roses. Had the 37-year-old Carmouche won, he would have matched Winkfield, who won atop Alan-a-Day in 1902.

At the Stretch

Carmouche is a success story in his own right. He is the son of a jockey who has won more than 3,400 races and earned $118 million since beginning to ride professionally in 2000. Obviously, there have not been many Black riders in recent decades, but if you go back to the early years of the Derby, the late 1800s, early 1900s, Black jockeys dominated the Kentucky Derby. Today’s Thoroughbreds are piloted around the racetrack by jockeys who are mostly white and Latino. Each year, along with hat shopping, forecast watching, and amateur handicapping, the Kentucky Derby brings with it a sense of the state’s rich history. But whose history, is it?


June Coxson

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