Justify won the Triple Crown on Saturday, making him only the 13th horse since 1919 to win the Triple Crown (and only the second since 1978). And for one day, horse racing might have been the biggest horse story in America. But after this past weekend, the attention of sports fans will quickly move on to other sports. So perhaps while attention lingers on horse racing, this is a good time to briefly review some history in the sport.
Once upon a time, horse racing was huge. In fact, in the latter part of the 19th century, horse racing was likely the biggest sport in America. And after the horses (of course), the sports stars were the jockeys.
Isaac Burns Murphy was one of these early stars. Murphy won the Kentucky Derby in 1884, 1890 and 1891 — the first jockey to win this race three times. Murphy’s success led to a yearly salary between $15,000 and $20,000, or nearly $1 million in today’s dollars.
Joe Drape, author of “Black Maestro,” told CNN: “Murphy was the first millionaire black athlete. He even had a white valet.”
Murphy was not the only African-American jockey in that era. In fact, African-American jockeys at this time were quite common. Economists Michael Leeds and Hugh Rockoff recently explored this time in a working academic paper. Their paper — “Jim Crow in the Saddle: The Expulsion of African American Jockeys from American Racing” — begins by noting that in 1875, of the 15 horses in the Kentucky Derby, 13 were ridden by African-Americans.
Across the next quarter-century, Leeds and Rockoff noted, African-Americans continued to play a prominent role in horse racing. From 1875 to 1902, African-Americans rode 15 Kentucky Derby winners, with Jimmy Winkfield riding the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby in both 1901 and 1902. But Winkfield remains the last African-American to win this race.
Katherine Mooney noted that from 1921 to 2000, no black jockeys rode a horse in the Kentucky Derby. In addition, a few years ago, Sheena McKenzie of CNN noted that of the 750 members of the national Jockey’s Guild, only 30 — or 4% — were black.
What led to the disappearance of the African-American jockey?
Leeds and Rockoff argue that the high pay of stars like Murphy led more and more white jockeys to enter the field.
We find that African-American jockeys were displaced when the reward was higher. This had echoes about 75 years later, when women who coached women’s sports in American colleges were displaced by men after the passage of Title IX made coaching women’s sports more prestigious and lucrative.
How did white jockeys take away the jobs from African-Americans? Leeds and Rockoff state:
Beginning in about 1900 … white jockeys began a concerted and successful effort to force African American jockeys out of racing. Their method was violence. African-American jockeys were boxed out, run into the rail, hit with riding crops, and so on. Soon after the attack on the African-American jockeys began, they could not get rides. Owners, at the very least, gave their tacit consent to the expulsion of the African-American jockeys. It was another example of the wave of racism that engulfed America at the end of the 19th century and ended in Jim Crow.
In the end, the story of the African-American jockey is essentially the opposite of the story we often hear when we think about race and sports in America.
As Olivia Waxman observed: In many sports, the professional athletes who broke through the boundaries placed around them for being African-American — like Jackie Robinson or Jesse Owens — have remained famous figures of American history decades after their physical feats first made headlines. But when it comes to horse racing, the story has been somewhat reversed.
Today, jockeys tend to be from rural areas in Latin America. But when horse racing was king in the late 19th century, many of the top athletes were African-Americans. In essence, it was these jockeys who were the first dominant African-American athletes in United States history. And it is a sad legacy of Jim Crow that these athletes were forced out of competition and likely forgotten by most sports fans today.