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Historical Accomplishments of African American Jockeys in Triple Crown Thoroughbred Racing

Updated on August 6, 2017
beverley byer profile image

Beverley Byer has been writing professionally for a number of years. Her work has been published in magazines and newspapers.

Though few books and articles have been written on the subject, the immense accomplishments of African American jockeys, specifically in Triple Crown horse racing, are still relatively unknown. Prior to the Civil War (1861-1865), they were the celebrities of the big three thoroughbred racing events: The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes, and were treated much like today’s baseball, basketball, and football stars. It was also the era when thoroughbred racing itself took center stage.

A career as a jockey was a natural transition for many of these men. During slavery, they gained knowledge and became skilled at caring for and training horses. But establishment of the Jim Crow laws after the Civil War and emancipation coupled with the huge amounts of monies that were being poured into the sport at the time, led to their eventual decline from thoroughbred racing. The jockeys and the horse owners who employed them were abused and threatened with sanctions. Despite the hardships, these African American riders still managed to leave their indelible mark on the so-called “Sport of Kings.”

Oliver E. Lewis
Oliver E. Lewis
Isaac Burns Murphy
Isaac Burns Murphy
James 'Jimmy' Winkfield
James 'Jimmy' Winkfield
Alonzo 'Lonnie' Clayton
Alonzo 'Lonnie' Clayton

African American Accomplishments in the Kentucky Derby

Oliver E. Lewis

Oliver E. Lewis won the first ever Kentucky Derby in May, 1875. Riding the horse Aristides (trained by African American Ansel Williamson), this 19-year old African American jockey won the race by two lengths in the time of 2:37.75 minutes. According to reports, there was controversy behind the victory. Apparently, he was supposed to set the pace and tire the other horses in the race, so Aristides’ stable mate Chesapeake could win. But it too got tired and owner H. Price McGrath gave him the go ahead to win the race. Lewis also finished second at the Belmont Stakes that year. When his career ended, he had a brief stint as a day laborer. He then became quite the bookmaker (bookie), which was a legal trade at the time.

Oliver Lewis was born a free man in 1856 in Fayette County. He was married and had six children. He died at the age of 68 in1924 in Lexington, Kentucky.

Isaac Burns Murphy

Isaac Burns Murphy made history by becoming the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times, a record which stood for at least three decades. His first victory was aboard the horse Buchanan in 1884, then Riley in 1890, and Kingman in 1891. Murphy was also the first inductee into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga, New York, in 1955. Murphy won 628 of his reported 1, 412 mounts. His overall winning percentage is between 33.3 and 44.5. Alcoholism and weight gain aided in his retirement from thoroughbred racing. He was suspended twice for intoxication.

Murphy was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1861. His mother did laundry for one of the owners of the Owings and Williams Racing Stable. Richard Owings’ African American trainer Eli Jordon gave Isaac his first racing opportunity at age 14. Isaac added Murphy to his name to honor his mother’s father with whom the family lived after his own father, a freed slave and prisoner of the Civil War, died. After riding, Murphy delved into real estate, and was one of the first African Americans to own race horses. In 1896, he died of pneumonia at age 36, and was buried next to the thoroughbred Man O’ War in the KentuckyHorsePark, Lexington.

James ‘Jimmy’ Winkfield

James ‘Jimmy’ Winkfield was the first to win two consecutive Kentucky Derby races aboard Eminence in 1901 and Alan-a-Dale in 1902. He was also the last African American to win the Derby. At the end of his 30-year career, Jimmy had a total of 2,500 victories in the United States (U.S.) and Europe combined. He rode in the U.S. from 1893 to 1903 and in Europe from 1904 to 1930. In Europe, Winkfield won such prominent races as the Moscow Derby in Russia and the Prix du President de la Republique in France. Besides his Derby wins, Winkfield had one second and one third place finish.

James Winkfield was forced to relocate to Europe and settled in Russia where he married into the aristocracy and lived with his wife and son until the 1917 Russian Revolution. He then moved to France and back to the U.S. during World War II. After the war, he returned to France, started a new family (a daughter), owned a farm, and trained horses.

Born in Chilesburg, Kentucky in 1882, James Winkfield was the youngest of 17 children and the son of a slave. As a child, he worked on a thoroughbred farm. Jimmy died in 1974, in France at the age of 92. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004. The Aqueduct Racetrack in New York honored him by renaming their Best Turn Stakes the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes in 2005.

Alonzo ‘Lonnie’ Clayton

At the age of 15 in 1892, Alonzo ‘Lonnie’ Clayton was the first of the youngest jockeys to win the Kentucky Derby. Aboard the horse Azra, he came from behind to win by a nose (The other 15-year old African American to win the Derby was James Perkins in 1895 aboard horse Halma). Clayton had other high Derby finishes throughout his career. Records show that he placed in 60 percent of his races in 1895 alone. He became one of the highest paid jockeys on the East Coast.

Alonzo was born in 1876 in Kansas City. Some records show the state to be Kansas, while others show it to be Missouri. His family moved to Little Rock, Arkansas when he was 10. Young Clayton ran errands and shined shoes for money to help his parents and eight siblings. He left home at age 12 to join his brother Albertus, who was also a jockey. At the stables, he was hired to care for and exercise horses. Stable owner E.J. ‘Lucky” Baldwin later employed him as a jockey. Though charges were dropped, his racing career ended when he was accused of alleged race-fixing at Aqueduct, New York. The last years of his life, he worked as a bellhop. Never married, Alonzo Clayton died of tuberculosis in California in 1917 at the age of 41.

George B. 'Spider' Anderson
George B. 'Spider' Anderson

African American Accomplishments in the Preakness Stakes

George B. ‘Spider’ Anderson

George B. ‘Spider’ Anderson was the first African American to win the Preakness Stakes aboard the horse Buddhist. He did it on May 10, 1889 at the age of 18. According to published accounts, Anderson’s horse was the only won entered in the race until then governor of Maryland, Oden Bowie entered his own horse to avoid a walkover win. The move did not impede Anderson’s victory. In fact, it made it better. He had competition and won. His time was 2:17:50 minutes. It was also reported that Anderson fought with his coach prior to the race, which resulted with him striking the man on the head with his whip handle and causing injury. Spider also had a third place finish in 1896 aboard the horse Intermission. When weight control became an issue, he switched to Steeplechase riding.

George Anderson was born in Baltimore in1871. No other personal information about him is known.

Ed Brown
Ed Brown

African American Accomplishments in the Belmont Stakes

Ed D. Brown

Ed D. Brown was the first African American to win the Belmont Stakes. He did so aboard the horse Kingfisher in 1870. He was born a slave in 1850 in Lexington, Kentucky, and at age seven was sold to Robert Alexander, owner of Woodburn Stud. Brown worked as a groom until the end of the Civil War, and then Alexander employed him as a jockey. After Alexander’s passing, Brown rode for Stockwood Farm, which was owned by a former manager of Woodburn Stud.

When he retired from racing in 1903, he founded his own stables, Ed Brown & Company, and became a very successful trainer. Many of his thoroughbreds finished in top places at Kentucky and Belmont. Brown trained the 1877 Derby winner Baden Baden. The horse also finished third at Belmont the same year. He also trained other Derby winners: Hundoo in 1881 (which became a Hall of Fame horse) and Ben Bush in 1896. Ed Brown was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1903. He died of tuberculosis in1906.

Willie Simms
Willie Simms

The Ultimate African American Victor in Triple Crown Thoroughbred Racing

Willie Simms

Willie Simms is the first and only jockey to win all three legs of the Triple Crown. The African American won the KentuckyDerby in 1896 aboard Ben Bush (trained by Ed Brown), the Preakness Stakes in 1898 aboard Plaudit, and the Belmont Stakes in 1898 aboard Sly Fox. He also won Belmont in 1893 aboard Commanche and again in 1894 aboard Henry of Navarre. Simms introduced the leaning forward, crouching manner of riding with short stirrups to the U.S. and England. The Jim Crow laws forced him to move to England. In 1895, he became the first American jockey to win a race there and aboard an American horse. In 14 years of racing, Simms won 1,125 of his 4,532 mounts, giving him a percentage 24.8.

Willie Simms was born on January 16, 1870 in Augusta, Georgia. He began riding East Coast tracks in 1887. When word of his fine skills got out, several top owners such as James R. Keene, Pierre Lorillard, and Mike and Phil Dwyer competed for his services. After retiring from racing, Simms became a trainer. He died on February 26, 1927 in Ashbury, New Jersey, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.

About Triple Crown Thoroughbred Racing

The Kentucky Derby is the first leg of the Triple Crown. It began in 1875 and was created by Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson of William Clark, one half of famed explorers Lewis and Clark. The race began as 1.5 miles, and limited to 3-year old thoroughbreds. The distance changed to 1.25 miles in 1896. Currently running on the first Saturday in May at the Churchill Downs track in Louisville, the Derby is termed “Most exciting two minute in sports,” “Fastest two minutes in sports,” and “Run for the roses.”

The Preakness Stakes is the second leg of the Triple Crown and is held every third Saturday in May at the Pimlico Racecourse in Baltimore, Maryland. Thoroughbreds race for one and three-sixteenths miles. It was started by Maryland’s governor Oden Bowie in 1873. The race is termed “Run for the Black-Eyed Susans,” referring to the blanket of yellow flowers that is placed on the winning horse.

Belmont Stakes is the third and final leg of the Triple Crown, and is held in June, three weeks after the Preakness Stakes. The course is 1.5 miles long, and the race is open to 3-year old horses. The event was created in 1866 by Leonard Jerome, who built the Bronx, NY track where it was first held, and August Belmont, Sr., who provided the financing. The event was named for Belmont. The race was moved to the current Belmont course, in Elmont, NY in May 1905. It is often termed “The Test of the Champion.”

A further note: According to the Jockey Guild, of the 1,000 plus jockeys racing thoroughbreds in the U.S. today, only 50 are black.


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