The Kentucky Derby, the first of the “Triple Crown” of thoroughbred horse racing, began on this day in 1875. The odds were good that a black jockey would win the prestigious contest, with Oliver Lewis becoming the first to do so.
Lewis, 19, was a Kentucky native who climbed atop Aristides, a horse trained by a Black man and former slave, Ansel Williamson. Among the field of riders at the Louisville Jockey Club, 13 of the 15 riders were Black, which wasn’t uncommon at the tail end of the 19th Century and considering the sport’s popularity across the deep South.
Another horse, Chesapeake, ridden by jockey William Henry, was the favored horse to win so Lewis was instructed to speed ahead of the pack and tire the other horses out, then throw the race. However, Chesapeake lagged by the group and Aristides finished the 1.5-mile race by two lengths. Lewis went on to take second place the Belmont Stakes in New York that same season and won more races before walking away from the sport for good.
By the 1920’s, Black jockeys all but disappeared from the sport and were relegated to lesser jobs such as cleaning stables and training horses. Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield, who won the Derby in 1901 and 1902, was the last Black jockey to win.
In 2000, Marlon St. Julien became the first Black jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby in 79 years. He rode Curule to a 7th place finish.
PHOTO: Public Domain
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