hen the horses enter the gate for the 144th Kentucky Derby, their jockeys will hail from Louisiana, Mexico, Puerto Rico and France. None will be African-American. That’s been the norm for quite a while. When Marlon St. Julien rode the Derby in 2000, he became the first black man to get a mount since 1921.
It wasn’t always this way. The Kentucky Derby, in fact, is closely intertwined with black Americans’ struggles for equality, a history I explore in my book on race and thoroughbred racing. In the 19th century – when horse racing was America’s most popular sport – former slaves populated the ranks of jockeys and trainers, and black men won more than half of the first 25 runnings of the Kentucky Derby. But in the 1890s – as Jim Crow laws destroyed gains black people had made since emancipation – they ended up losing their jobs.
From slavery to the Kentucky Derby
On May 17, 1875, a new track at Churchill Downs ran, for the first time, what it hoped would become its signature event: the Kentucky Derby.
Prominent thoroughbred owner H. Price McGrath entered two horses: Aristides and Chesapeake. Aristides’ rider that afternoon was Oliver Lewis, who, like most of his Kentucky Derby foes, was African-American. The horse’s trainer was an elderly former slave named Ansel Williamson.
Lewis was supposed to take Aristides to the lead, tire the field, and then let Chesapeake go on to win. But Aristides simply refused to let his stablemate pass him. He ended up scoring a thrilling victory, starting the Kentucky Derby on its path to international fame.
Meanwhile, men like Lewis and Williamson had shown that free blacks could be accomplished, celebrated members of society.