The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Jockeys

African American jockeys once dominated the track. But by 1921, they had disappeared from the Kentucky Derby

James Winkfield was a two-time Kentucky Derby winner and raced across Europe after racism kept him from being the best athlete in America's most popular sport. (Courtesy Kentucky Derby Museum / Kinetic Corporation)

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After his 1903 run in the Kentucky Derby, black Americans practically disappeared from Goodwin’s official list of jockeys. In 1911 Jess Conley came in third in the derby and in 1921, Henry King placed tenth. Seventy-nine years would pass before another African American would ride in the Derby. Marlon St. Julien took seventh place in 2000.

"I'm not an activist,” says St. Julien, who admitted during an interview a few years ago that he didn’t know the history of black jockeys and “started reading up on it.” Reached recently in Louisiana, where he is racing the state circuit, he says “I hope I’m a role model as a rider to anyone who wants to race."

Longtime equestrian and Newark, New Jersey, schoolteacher Miles Dean would agree that not enough is known about the nation’s great black jockeys. In an effort to remedy that, he has organized the National Day of the Black Jockey for Memorial Day weekend. The event will include educational seminars, a horse show, parade, and memorial tribute. All events will be held at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville.

Last year, Dean rode his horse, Sankofa, a 12-year-old Arabian stallion, in a six-month journey from New York to California. He spoke at colleges and communities to draw attention to African American contributions to the history and settlement of the United States.

"As an urban educator I see every day the disconnect students have with their past. By acknowledging the contributions of African American jockeys, I hope to heighten children's awareness of their history. It's a history of great achievement, not just a history of enslavement.”


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