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  • Lisa K. Winkler - SMITHSONIAN.COM

The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Jockeys

When tens of thousands of fans assemble in Louisville, Kentucky, May 2 for the 135th Kentucky Derby, they will witness a phenomenon somewhat unusual for today’s American sporting events: of some 20 riders, none are African American. Yet in the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, 13 out of 15 jockeys were black. Among the first 28 derby winners, 15 were black. African American jockeys excelled in the sport in the late 1800s. But by 1921, they had disappeared from the Kentucky track and would not return until Marlon St. Julien rode in the 2000 race.

African American jockeys’ dominance in the world of racing is a history nearly forgotten today. Their participation dates back to colonial times, when the British brought their love of horseracing to the New World. Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson frequented the track, and when President Andrew Jackson moved into the White House in 1829, he brought along his best Thoroughbreds and his black jockeys. Because racing was tremendously popular in the South, it is not surprising that the first black jockeys were slaves. They cleaned the stables and handled the grooming and training of some of the country’s most valuable horseflesh. From such responsibility, slaves developed the abilities needed to calm and connect with Thoroughbreds, skills demanded of successful jockeys.


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