Throughout American history, military valor and athletic showmanship have been utilized by African Americans as weapons for cultural respect. That is, courage in battle and superlative athleticism have been twins of Black accomplishment to achieve recognition and proper respect in America’s sociopolitical spheres.
Joe Louis is a prominent example. His defeat of Max Schmeling in their second heavyweight title fight in 1936 was widely hailed as a momentous victory for America over Nazi Germany before the first shot had been fired in the war, even though Black Americans were still wildly discriminated against all over America at that time, and Louis could not even celebrate his victory in certain clubs, restaurants and sports establishments because of his race.
In horse racing, the same was true. Thoroughbred horse racing was America’s first national sport, and every gentleman had to own a fast horse to show his credentials as being first-rate.
The best jockeys, at first, were Black Americans, some slaves, some free-born. In the Kentucky Derby, which became America’s favorite annual horse race for young colts (and infrequently for a few fillies), starting in 1875, the first 13 of 15 races were won by Black jockeys, as were the first 15 of 28 of the yearly race.
Men like Isaac Murphy, a double and consecutive winner of the Derby; Monk Overton, Oliver Lewis, and Jimmy Winkfield, the last Black American winner of the Derby in 1902 aboard Alan-a-Dale, all rest now in the Horse Racing Hall of Fame for their prowess on the turf. But horse racing changed, and Black riders were pushed out of the sport they began as the best riders.
After Winkfield, there was not another Black jockey riding in the Kentucky Derby for almost 100 years—2000’s Marlon St. Julien, whose brief stint ended up in 7th place. There was not another Black American rider until last month’s “Run for the Roses.” His name is Kevin Krigger, and though he was aboard one of the race favorites, Goldencents, he came in 17th. The track was muddy and sloppy after a hard rain, and his horse was not “a mudder,” i.e., not a horse that can run well in such conditions. He needed a dry, hard track.
Had Krigger won, not only would there have been a great victory celebration for Doug O’Neill, Goldencents’ trainer, who had won last year’s Derby with another virtually unknown jockey, such an accomplishment would have ushered in another African American presence in what is still a very important and influential sport in America and the world. But, alas, there’s still much work to be done in that area.
Similarly, though Black Americans are holding their own in professional hockey, it is still a major struggle to be recognized and respected in that sport.
The same can be said of swimming and ice skating. We are doing OK. Well, better than OK in tennis, golf, basketball and football, and though with lower numbers of players, still standing strong in major league baseball.
But horse racing is another thing we were once dominant in, that we should remember how to do well. It is a lucrative occupation and we can still produce the 100-pound, short men who are given a leg up on these 1,700-pound horses.
The ‘Sport of Kings” was once the domain of the Black princes of horses. Like our participation in the invention of math and science, we must remember well our history and find ways to reproduce such participation in today’s world. Black Americans have much more than a few splashes of glory in American and world history, and we must continue to remind ourselves of what we were and inspire ourselves back into what we can be in today’s world.
We are not a hang-your-head people. We’ve gotten tons done, and we still have many more miles to go. So, heads up, young man and young lady! Your past and your future are calling you again!
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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