- The 148th Kentucky Derby takes off on Saturday, May 7th.
- Black jockeys once dominated the sport — 15 of the first 28 Derbys were won by Black jockeys.
- However since 1921, there have only been four Black men who have competed in the Derby.
When the 148th Kentucky Derby takes off on Saturday, May 7th, for what’s dubbed as “The Greatest Two Minutes of Sports,” most viewers will probably be more focused on the horses than the jockeys sitting atop them.
Historically, Black jockeys used to dominate the sport. But these days, finding a Black jockey at the Derby is a rare occasion.
In the late 19th century in the first few decades of the Derby’s inception, Black jockeys were winning so often that they were ultimately expelled. In 2000, Marlon St. Julien became the first Black man to race in the Derby since 1921.
Since 2000, there have only been three other Black jockeys in the Derby, including Kendrick Carmouche who broke a seven year streak in 2021.
The majority of the jockeys in the 19th century were Black.
In 1875, the inaugural year of the Derby, 13 of the 15 jockeys who competed were Black. Oliver Lewis, who was born in Fayette County, Kentucky, was the first jockey to win the Derby on May 1, 1875. The horse he rode, Aristides, was trained by a Black trainer, Ansel Williamson.
Fifteen of the first 28 Derbys were won by Black jockeys.
By the 20th century, as the Jim Crow era began to take hold of the South, white jockeys were demanding segregation and the removal of Black jockeys from the sport.
By the 1890s, Kentucky began to enact more segregation laws, aligning itself more with policies that were already in place in other Southern states. The first of these was the Separate Coach Law in 1892, which required Black passengers to use separate accommodations on trains.
During this time, conflict between white and Black jockeys also came to head. White jockeys would be known to violently target Black competitors on the track, such as forcing them into the rails, or whipping them with riding crops. Perhaps because they did not want to manage the chances of their riders being targeted during a race, white owners began rejecting Black jockeys.
Black jockeys continued to be systemically barred from the sport by not receiving promotions and opportunities to ride top horses. Eventually, they were not selected at all.
National outlets began to publish articles that claimed that Black jockeys were inferior. In 1905, the Washington Post published an article titled, “Negro Riders on the Wane: White Jockeys’ Superior Intelligence Supersedes,” where the author argued that the decline in Black jockeys was because the sport was no longer considered “ignoble.”
Jimmy Winkfield, a Black jockey with two consecutive derby victories in 1901, and 1902, could not find any opportunities and eventually left the country for a racing career in Europe. He ended up being the last Black American jockey to ride a winning horse in the Derby. He is still considered one of the most talented racers in history, and one of only five to win back-to-back Derbys.