Horse racing has been around for thousands of years but it wasn’t until the 17th century that saw its popularity surge in the United States when it began in 1665 with the establishment of the Newmarket course in Salisbury, New York. Since the initial stages of the sport in the United States, African Americans have made significant contributions to horse racing, particularly from the early 19th century.
The foundations of African Americans in US horseracing
In the second half of the 17th century, it was common for wealthy landowners in the south to own and race horses with enslaved people caring for and training the horses whilst often riding them in races as well. Horse racing became the most popular sport in the United States in the 1820s, when some of the best trainers in the business were African American.
African American jockeys
The first documented African American jockey, known as Monkey Simon, rode in Tennessee in 1806. Isaac Burns Murphy won the Kentucky Derby three times (1884, 1890, and 1891), a record that was not broken until 1948, when jockey Eddie Arcaro won his fourth. Murphy was the first jockey to be inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame and is considered one of the best jockeys in American history having won an estimated 44 per cent of his races.
Willie Simms, also a member of the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame, became the first and only African American jockey to win all of the American Triple Crown races in the 1890s. In the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, African American jockeys won 15 of them. In 1901 and 1902, the last African American to win the Kentucky Derby back to back was James Winkfield.
African American racehorse trainers
African Americans were also among the best-known trainers in horse racing during the same period. For example, Edward Brown trained the horse Baden-Baden, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1877, and Alex Perry trained Joe Cotton, who won in 1885. In addition, African Americans remained involved in the sport as exercise riders, groomers, stable hands, and clockers.
After World War I, as horse racing became a major attraction for the United States, African Americans were excluded from riding and were hired almost exclusively as stable hands. This was a shame as African Americans helped the sport come to fruition since its beginning but unfortunately, segregation took hold and their achievements were overlooked, to say the least. Anyone now who placed some Tancred Stakes bets would have benefitted from knowing who the trainers were, given the skill and care that these legends were known for with the horses.
The late 20th century saw an increase in interest in horse racing among the African American community with celebrities such as rapper MC Hammer and Motown Record Corporation founder Berry Gordy, Jr., owning and racing horses. In 2000 jockey Marlon St. Julien became the first African American to ride in the Kentucky Derby since 1921. In that same year, William E. Summers IV chaired the Derby Festival Board, the second African American to do so. It is great to see more interest in horse racing coming from the African American community and all people around the world, as the grand sport of horse racing should be accessible to all.
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