The Rise and Decline of African-American Jockeys

A Guest Post by Dark Horse Bet

 As America celebrates Black History Month, it’s a good time to reflect on African-American history in the sport of horse racing and the early dominance of black athletes on the American track.

Horse racing was the first sport for black professional athletes, and in the beginning years, African-American jockeys were regular riders in the races. Beginning in colonial times, the prominence of African-American jockeys came from the fact that many slaves from the south were accustomed to duties on the farm and work in the stables. This familiarity with the horses encouraged plantation owners to confidently put their slaves in the saddles in casual races throughout the south. As the sport continued to grow and become more organized throughout the decades, so did the number of black riders on the forefront of it all, with the sons of many former slaves eventually taking the reins.

By 1875, the first Kentucky Derby launched and 13 of the 15 riders were African-American, with jockey Oliver Lewis and horse, Aristides, taking home the first place win. African American riders like Isaac Murphy—the first jockey to win 3 Kentucky Derbies— Ed Brown, Alonzo Clayton , James “Soup” Perkins and Willie Simms all continued to lead the sport, proving their talent in the industry through various wins and leading stats.

However, when plaguing changes set in motion by the Jim Crow laws (passed in the late 1880s) began to set in, the role of African-American athletes in horseracing quickly and dramatically began to change at the turn of the century. A vast sense of segregation quickly swept in, removing all African-American riders from the tracks. Jimmy Winkfield, another black jockey who rose to prominence during the era of African-American jockeys, would be the last African-American to win the Kentucky Derby, taking home the title in 1901 on horse “His Eminence” and again in 1902 on “Alan-a-Dale.”

What was once the golden era for black jockeys became a distant memory as America’s segregated identity got in the way, leading many riders, like Winkfield, to move abroad to countries like Russia for greater acceptance and more opportunities on the horseracing track.  It was 79 years before another black rider, Marlon St. Julien, would ride in the Kentucky Derby in 2000.

Recent figures suggest that today, only 30 of the 750 members of the national Jockey’s Guild are black, with a high percentage of Latino riders now on the tracks. Though African-American prominence on the racetrack is far from where it was over a century ago, there are a few successful black jockeys, like DeShawn Parker competing in the states. Parker has won over 4,000 races in his career, and in 2010, he became the first African-American jockey to win the most races in North America since James “Soup” Perkins.


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