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Celebrating the History of Black Jockeys in the Kentucky Derby

Celebrating the History of Black Jockeys in the Kentucky Derby

African American jockeys have played a significant role in horse racing, and more specifically, the Kentucky Derby. Sadly, their participation and accomplishments have widely been unspoken and erased due to systemic racism throughout the industry. Despite inequalities, pioneering jockeys exemplified love for the sport, the pursuit of excellence and the perseverance it takes to be a Derby winner. The time to celebrate these men and highlight their spirit and accomplishments is long overdue. 

As the presenting sponsor of the Kentucky Derby, Woodford Reserve Bourbon is honored to celebrate the rich legacy of the early Black jockeys who’ve elevated the Kentucky Derby, a race that has a 147-year history.

Considered the first professional athletes in the United States, Black jockeys pushed the sport to great heights in the late 1800’s and early 1900s. The numbers tell an amazing story of resilience and Black excellence. Despite segregation, a disparity in resources and implicit bias, 11 Black jockeys won 15 of the early Derbys between 1875 and1902. In the inaugural Derby of 1875, 13 of the 15 jockeys were Black, including the winner Oliver Lewis. He rode Aristides, who was trained by Ansel Williamson, another Black man integral to the evolution of the Kentucky Derby, also known as The Run for the Roses.

THE CELEBRATION CONTINUES

For the past 16 years, Woodford Reserve has sold their $1,000 Mint Julep Cup at the Kentucky Derby with proceeds benefiting a chosen charity. This year, the charity program will pay tribute to the Black jockeys who won the early races by inscribing each iconic $1,000 Mint Julep Cup with their names. Only 100 cups were sold: 11 Gold-Plated cups ($2,500) and 89 Sterling Cups ($1,000).

Each cup is paired with a decorative silk designed by Louisville-based artist Gwendolyn Kelly, featuring a custom pattern called the “four-man clover,” representing the interconnected network of support and strength among Black jockeys, trainers, and groomsmen. The bag was designed by Louisville-based artist Albert Shumake as a nod to the winner’s purses, which were historically hung above the gates after races. Each bag is a unique, bespoke creation that truly connects the history of the Kentucky Derby to the present day.

Proceeds from the sales of the 2021 cup program will go to Project to Preserve African American Turf History (PPAATH), a non-profit organization that has spent more than a decade championing African-American contributions to horse racing and in particular, the Kentucky Derby. Founded by Leon Nichols and Calvin Davis, some of PPAATH’s projects include education in schools, the restoration of the Lexington cemetery where several of these famous jockeys are buried, art curation and the Isaac Murphy Image Awards. Isaac Burns Murphy (April 16, 1861 – February 12, 1896) was an American Hall of Fame Jockey and one of the greatest riders in horse racing. Not only did he win three Kentucky Derbys, but he also won 44% of his races—jockeys average about 20%. 

TELLING THE STORIES OF BLACK JOCKEYS

Museum guest visits The Black Heritage in Racing Exhibit at the Kentucky Derby Museum.
(Image courtesy of the Kentucky Derby Museum)

In March 2021, the Kentucky Derby Museum expanded its exhibit that features the legacy of the Black horsemen and gives them their due as founders of the sport. The Black Heritage in Racing exhibit spans more than 900 square feet on the first floor of the museum. In a statement, Patrick Armstrong, President and CEO of the museum said, “It was our team’s intent when designing this exhibit to give these individuals their time to shine, by making them stand out in these oversized pictures throughout the space. It is our hope that when exploring this exhibit, people will walk away with a greater appreciation of the Black Heritage that is woven through horse racing.”

The Kentucky Derby is the longest running sporting event in the United States and is held on the first Saturday in May. It’s imperative that we continue to recognize and celebrate the past and present contributions African-Americans have made to this race and industry.

William Simms won the Kentucky Derby in 1896 and 1898. (Image courtesy of Keeneland Library.)
Issac Murphy won the Kentucky Derby in 1884, 1890 and 1891. (Image courtesy of Keeneland Library.)
Oliver Lewis won the the first Kentucky Derby in 1875. (Image courtesy of Keeneland Library.)

A HISTORY OF SUCCESS: BLACK WINNERS OF THE KENTUCKY DERBY (1875-1902)

OLIVER LEWIS: Aristides (1875)

WILLIAM “BILLY” WALKER: Baden-Baden (1877)

GEORGE GARRET LEWIS: Fonso (1880)

BABE HURD: Apollo (1882)

ISAAC MURPHY: Buchanan (1884), Riley (1890), Kingman (1891)

See Also

ERSKINE “BABE” HENDERSON: Joe Cotton (1885)

ISAAC LEWIS: Montrose (1887)

ALONZO “LONNIE” CLAYTON: Azra (1892)

JAMES “SOUP” PERKINS: Halma (1895)

WILLIE SIMMS: Ben Brush (1896), Plaudit (1898)

For more information about Woodford Reserve and the Kentucky Derby visit the website today.


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