Black Jockeys Once Major Force In Horse Racing

BALTIMORE - On May 10, 1889, George "Spider" Anderson made history by riding Buddhist to an easy victory in the Preakness. Anderson was the first black jockey to win the race.

"I didn't know that," said Dale Mills, 33, a black trainer and exercise rider at Pimlico and Laurel. "My knowledge of black racing history is limited. Basically, what I know is what I read about Isaac Murphy."

For a long time, that is all anyone knew - Murphy, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner. But now, after more than 100 years of being written out of horse racing history, the story of the black jockey is being uncovered.

For years, the Pimlico media guide said a black jockey won the Preakness in 1898 - Willie Simms aboard Sly Fox.

But nine years earlier, Anderson had done it.

When Anderson arrived at the track that day, his horse was the only one entered in the big race. But then former Maryland Gov. Oden Bowie, who created the Preakness in 1873 and remained its strongest patron, decided to send his outclassed colt, Japhet, to post to avoid Buddhist's winning in a walkover.

For some reason, Anderson went to Bowie's stables that morning and got in a fight with James Cook, a coachman. And it was some fight. Both men slashed and cut at each other with their whips. Cook suffered a deep cut on his head from Anderson's lead-loaded whip handle and threatened to bring charges.

In those days, a justice set up court right at the track, but it was arranged that Anderson should ride his horses that day before being prosecuted.

In the end, Anderson brought Buddhist home in a romp in 2:17 1/2, to make his owner, S.S. Brown, $1,000 richer - and Cook never showed up to press charges.

Anderson's achievements were just uncovered last year by Ed Hotaling, a writer and producer for NBC, as he was doing research for his new book, "They're Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga."

Hotaling said he was stunned to find how much blacks contributed to the sport in its early days and equally appalled at how they were pushed out in the early 1900s, when Jim Crow laws came into existence.

"These were the first great American athletes, white or black, and they were written out of the history books," he said. "The saddest part is that they weren't and haven't been brought back into the sport."

Anderson's accomplishments in the Preakness - which are still not noted in the Preakness guide or in Pimlico's recently re-opened Hall of Fame - are just a small part of the black history that has been lost and that is now being rediscovered.

Though little research beyond Hotaling's exists - so little in fact that when the Library of Congress created a new category in the library's collection this year called "Afro-Americans in horse racing," Hotaling's book was the only one in it - it is already clear that when Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier 50 years ago, it was not the first time that this country's major sports scene was integrated.

Before baseball became the national pastime, the first major sport in the United States was horse racing.

And in the late 1800s, horse racing was dominated by black jockeys. A few examples:

-- Isaac Murphy, by far the most famous and most successful black jockey, was the first jockey to win three Kentucky Derbys and the first jockey to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at Saratoga, N.Y.

Murphy said he won on 628 of his 1,412 mounts for a .445 winning percentage. Records from the time put his winning percentage at about .333. But no matter which is right, it is a spectacular record when compared with modern-day riders. Eddie Arcaro, one of the best jockeys of the 20th century, had a winning percentage of just .198.

-- Black jockeys won at least 15 of the first 28 Derbys.

-- Willie Simms, also a Hall of Fame member, is the only black jockey to have won all the Triple Crown races. He is also credited with introducing the short stirrup to professional riding.

"Once economics, big money came into racing, the black jockey was pushed out," said Inez Chappell, president of the Baltimore-based historical group African-Americans in Horse Racing. "And racism is still alive. There are black jockeys out there, but they do what they have to do. They claim to be Jamaican or something else. If you speak in an unknown tongue, then the color of your skin doesn't bother people.

"Right here at the Preakness, I go to the Alibi Breakfast with a few of my friends, and we're the only black people there. Not one African-American trainer is invited and there are several at Pimlico. It's sad."

Outside the Pimlico Hall of Fame, the wall is decorated with reproductions of paintings destroyed in the clubhouse fire of 1966. Chappell took it upon herself to have a painting made of Simms. It is hung at the entrance to the Hall of Fame room. It and a small painting titled "The Great Race at Pimlico," Oct. 24, 1877, which depicts a black jockey racing against two whites, are the only indications of black participation in the Preakness.

Today, John Ball, assistant director of the Jockey Guild's communication department, said he isn't sure how many black jockeys are racing. He pulls out the Guild's yearbook and begins looking at the pictures. He counts 15 dark-skinned riders who might be black, Caribbean or Latino.

"We don't look at jockeys as being black or white," Ball said. "I can't go to my computer and punch that up."

When racing came into prominence after the Civil War, many horse owners used their former slaves as jockeys, and many ex-slaves had gravitated to the sport because they were familiar and comfortable with the animals.

When the Jim Crow laws came into existence, said Hotaling, black jockeys were forced out of flat track racing. Some continued to race the more dangerous steeplechase circuits, but by 1911, they were mostly gone.

How were they forced out? Take the case of Jimmy Winkfield.

In 1899, he won 39 races, an impressive total for those days. But in 1900, he was run into the rail in Chicago during a "jockey war" between whites and blacks. Winkfield did win back-to-back Derbys in 1901 and 1902, but when he came back to try for three in a row in 1903, race starter Jake Holtman yelled racist comments at him, and when he lost the race, he heard such talk more often. Finally, when he received threats from the Ku Klux Klan, he left the United States for Russia, where he is said to have ridden for the czar.

Until last year, it was believed that the last black jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby was Jess "Longshot" Conley in 1911. But researchers at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville have discovered that the Henry King who rode Planet in 1921 was also black.

"But that was a rarity," Hotaling said. "If people see that and think black jockeys competed into the 1920s along side white riders, that's just not true. By 1910, they were all but gone."

The last black jockey to ride in the Preakness was Simms, the year he won, in 1898. And the last black jockey to ride in the Belmont was Jimmy Lee in 1908.

"I don't know why there aren't more black jockeys," said Dale Mills, the trainer, but he does have his suspicions.

"Occasionally, a black kid will come around and ask me how to get started as a jockey," Mills said. "But I have no avenue to send them to. I was lucky. My uncle had a farm, and that's how I learned to ride. A young black kid can't just walk on to the track and ask to learn on an expensive horse."

And, adds Mills, a rider has to go through so much to get hired.

"It's not like becoming an auto mechanic, where you go to school, learn the parts and, boom, you can fix cars," Mills said. "In this business, you have to start at the bottom, work your way up. Pay your dues. A lot of kids won't stick it out."

Candace Perry, curator at the Derby Museum, backs up Mills. "Would-be jockeys have to start at the bottom, working in barns," she said. "It takes somebody who loves horses."

Mills said there could be another reason, too.

"Getting owners who are white to give their horses to a black trainer is hard unless you have someone to speak up for you," said Mills, who trains for one black owner, J.D. Brown, and one white owner, Kenneth Geary. "I think that's probably true for black jockeys, too."

Whatever the reasons, no black jockey currently rides in major stakes races in this country.

"Black jockeys are there in old pictures, with no mention that they're black," said Hotaling. "Their history is there. It's wide open, so much remaining to be discovered. It's nice to bring them back in and give them their due."