The Race of the First Kentucky Derby

On May 17, 1875, America’s most storied horse race was first ran: the Kentucky Derby. The winning jockey was Oliver Lewis aboard a horse name Aristides.

We have forgotten how black Americans, in the beginning, not only ran these thoroughbreds but also cared for them. In this first running of the Kentucky Derby, thirteen out of fifteen jockeys were black. In fact, of the first 28 derby winners, more than half of the jockeys (15) were black. However, by the early 20th century, black jockeys faded from view. In fact, a black jockey would not ride a horse in the Kentucky Derby for 79 years when Marlon St. Julien jockeyed a horse in the 2000 running of the roses.

The irony is black American has a storied past with horses and horse racing that dates to the colonial era. Many founding fathers loved the track, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Andrew Jackson actually relocated his stables to DC (along with his black jockeys) when he became president in 1829.

The popularity of horse racing in the South meant that many slaves raised, cared and jockeyed their owners stock. As one historian noted, “For blacks, racing provided a false sense of freedom. They were allowed to travel the racing circuit, and some even managed their owners’ racing operation. They competed alongside whites. When black riders were cheered to the finish line, the only colors that mattered were the colors of their silk jackets, representing their stables. Horse racing was entertaining for white owners and slaves alike and one of the few ways for slaves to achieve status.”

It’s a story that needs to be told. In many ways it was a sport that brought America–black and white–together. Ironically, the horse race lost its luster in the early 1900s because a new race was tearing up the track: automobiles and motorcycles. For racing enthusiasts, the sport is about speed and the motor proved a faster thrill.

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