Black History Month: Shining a Spotlight on Notable African American Jockeys in Horse Racing

Legends
Legendary jockey Isaac Murphy was the first rider to win three runnings of the Kentucky Derby, in 1884, 1890, and 1891. (Library of Congress)

From the beginnings of the sport in the United States, African Americans have made significant contributions to horse racing. African American jockeys dominated the winner’s circle in racing’s first three decades. They were the first black superstar athletes in the United States, and won 15 of the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby. In fact, 13 of 15 jockeys at the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875 were African American.

Here are four legendary African American jockeys from horse racing history that you need to know about:

Oliver Lewis: On May 17, 1875, 19-year-old Lewis won the very first Kentucky Derby on Aristides for African American trainer Ansel Williamson. Lewis and Aristides went on to finish second in the Belmont Stakes. Lewis, a native of Lexington, went on to become a bookmaker after his riding career.

Isaac Burns Murphy: Murphy won the Kentucky Derby three times in 1884, 1890, and 1891 and in doing so became the richest American athlete. During his peak years, Murphy reportedly earned $15,000 to $20,000 annually when the average yearly income for a family of four was $1,200. Murphy, a native of Clark County in central Kentucky who began his riding career at age 14, also owned and trained horses. He is buried at the Kentucky Horse Park across from Man O’ War. Murphy was among the first group of jockeys inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in its inaugural year of 1955.

Winkfield aboard Alan-a-Dale. (Churchill Downs photo)

James Winkfield: Winkfield became the second jockey to win Kentucky Derbies back to back, in 1901 and 1902. Winkfield took his talents overseas in the following years, becoming a leading jockey in Russia and also competing in several other European countries. He later bred and trained racehorses in France. Winkfield, the last African American jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 2004.

Willie Simms: In the 1890s, Simms became the first (and only) African American jockey to win all the American Triple Crown races, winning the Kentucky Derby (in 1896 and 1898), Preakness (1898), and Belmont Stakes (1893 and 1894) decades before the concept of the Triple Crown took hold. In 1895, the Augusta, Ga. native was invited to race in England, where he became the first jockey to win a race on an American horse in that country. Simms won the 1896 Kentucky Derby in its first running as a 1 ¼-mile race. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1977.

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