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Honoring African-American jockeys during Black History Month

Posted: 7:31 AM, Feb 10, 2020
Updated: 2020-02-10 10:14:24-05
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (LEX 18) — During the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, 13 of the 15 jockeys were African Americans.

Oliver Lewis was one of the 13. He won that very first Derby.

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Some of the early African American jockeys go down in history as legends in the industry.

"Isaac Murphy, [was] one of the greatest jockeys, who has ever lived," explained Kentucky Derby Museum Director of Curatorial and Educational Affairs Chris Goodlett. "He was actually the first jockey to made it to the Hall of Fame inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1955. He was born enslaved in 1861, of course Emancipation Proclamation comes in 1863, Civil War comes in 1865. So, he would have only been enslaved for a few years, to a very young age, but he started riding horses at the age of 14."

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Goodlett said Murphy had one of the highest winning percentages.

"I think his winning percentage is estimated at around 40-44%. Records aren't as good back then so it's tough to get an exact handle on what his percentage was but a modern day jockey riding his races at the same level might have a winning percentage in the 20s. That just gives you an idea of how dominant he was in the racetrack."

A few decades into the Kentucky Derby, American culture bled into the industry.

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"Jim Crow and segregation, really impact African-American jockeys. And firstly, the same discrimination they were facing in everyday life. They were also facing on the racetrack," said Goodlett. "So African American jockeys are very prominent to the first 25-27 years of the Kentucky Derby. But you turn of the 20th century, more urban lifestyle in America. Racing is a sport that many people are really absorbed in their leisure time, it's very popular can be very lucrative. So African-American jockeys or white counterparts become more interested. "

As racism and rough riding on the track became more common, trainers and owners started shying away from employing African-American jockeys.

Decades later post-Jim Crow era, the horse racing industry slowly became accepting again of black jockeys. But then again, there has not been an African American riding in the Kentucky Derby since 2013.