Monday, April 29, 2002

Black jockey's journey spanned different worlds

Prejudice rode ex-Cincinnati rider out of country

By Neil Schmidt,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        From her seat Saturday in Section 312, Row A of Churchill Downs, 77-year-old Walnut Hills resident Liliane Casey will witness the Kentucky Derby. She'll see an event quite different from the one her father, Jimmy Winkfield, won 100 years ago this week.

        The race and race track shared their darkest hour in 1902, Churchill facing a financial crisis and its signature event surviving as just a local race. But while the track and Derby have since ascended to icon status, Mr. Winkfield became a historical footnote: the last African-American jockey to win the race.

   • Name: Jimmy Winkfield

    • Born: April 12, 1882 in Chilesburg, Ky.

    • Died: March 23, 1974 in Maisons-Laffitte, France.

    • Family: Married twice. First wife, Alexandra, died in 1920 or '21; they had a son, George (died in 1934). Second wife, Lydia, died in 1958; they had a son, Robert (died in 1977), and a daughter, Liliane (now 77, living in Cincinnati).

    • Career: Began racing in 1898. Retired as a jockey in 1930 and began a career as a trainer. Opened a school for training jockeys in 1953.

    • Racing highlights: Won 1901 and '02 Kentucky Derbys. In Russia, won the Emperor's Purse, the Moscow Derby twice and the Russian Derby three times. In Germany, won the Grand Prix de Baden. In Poland, won the Poland Derby twice. In France, won the Prix du President de la Republique. Trained a horse that won the Grand Prix de Paris.

    Other notable African-American jockeys

    • Isaac Murphy. The first jockey inducted into the Hall of Fame. He was the first to win three Kentucky Derbys (1884, 1890 and 1891) and won 44 percent of all races he rode, a record that has never been threatened.

    • Willie Simms. The Hall of Famer was national riding champion in 1893 and 1894 and won the Kentucky Derby both times he raced, in 1896 and 1898.

    • Shelby “Pike” Barnes. Was national riding champion in 1888 and 1889, becoming the first jockey to win more than 200 races in a year (206 in 1888).

    • Tony Hamilton. Won nearly all the prestigious New York races during the 1890s. Ranked as the country's second-best jockey in 1891.

    • Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton. Became the youngest jockey, at 15, to win the Kentucky Derby (1892). Finished in the money in all four of his Derby starts.

    • James “Soup” Perkins. Began racing at age 11, tying Mr. Clayton's youngest-Derby-winner mark by winning in 1895 at 15. Was national riding champion that year.

    • Jimmie Lee. Won all six races at Churchill Downs on June 5, 1907, the only jockey ever to sweep a full card of American racing. Ranked as the country's second-best rider that year.

    • Alfred “Monk” Overton. Won all six of his races at Washington Park in Illinois on July 10, 1891. Rode in eight Kentucky Derbys.

    • William Walker. Won the 1877 Kentucky Derby. Won riding titles at Churchill Downs in five meets. Became one of the country's foremost experts on breeding.

        A bit of dust has collected on Mr. Winkfield's tale, possibly the sport's greatest saga. The story of a self-taught jockey who won back-to-back Derbys. One who escaped the Bolsheviks during World War I and the Nazis during World War II. One who rode in Russia, Poland, France, Austria, Hungary, England, Spain and Italy, ultimately winning every race of consequence on the continent. One who trained in France for 35 years, finding his legend at home all but forgotten.

        Mr. Winkfield was the last of the great African-American jockeys. A century of change has buried the story of him and his forefathers: the first professional athletes in American history.

        “They were ridden out of the sport, and they've been sort of written out of the sport, too,” said Edward Hotaling, author of The Great Black Jockeys. “Their disappearance, I see really as a civil rights story.”

        At the first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, 13 of the 15 jockeys were African-Americans. Blacks would ride 15 of the first 28 Derby winners, including Mr. Winkfield's victories in 1901 and 1902.

        But a number of changes in the sport's climate, coming in the days of segregation and Jim Crow laws, spelled an exodus of African- American jockeys from the racing scene. The last time an African-American won a major stakes race was 1908, when Jimmie Lee took the Travers at Saratoga in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

        Just one African-American has ridden in a Triple Crown race in the last 81 years: Marlon St. Julien, who finished seventh in the 2000 Derby. African-Americans make up just a fraction of the riding community, and Mrs. Casey's invitation from Churchill officials to attend this Derby in her father's honor represents a dubious anniversary.

        “It's sad that he was the last one to win this,” she said. “I'm hoping that things will change.”

First star athletes

        Horse racing, dating to recorded races in 1665 in Long Island, N.Y., became America's initial national pastime. For more than two centuries, the majority of the jockeys were black.

        The status of owning thoroughbred horses imported from England was a true indicator of American wealth. As a cost-effective approach, the training of these horses was assigned to the slaves. Since they knew the temperament of each horse they trained, the African-Americans were soon selected as race riders.

        The earliest known star among black jockeys was known only as Simon, a man who in the early 1800s had much success in a hot-blooded series of races against horses owned by Gen. Andrew Jackson, the future president. Abe Hawkins was another top draw, beating top Caucasian jockey Gilbert Patrick Watson in an 1866 match race before 25,000 fans in New York City.

        For the most part, slave jockeys dominated the circuit. But the Civil War shut down tracks in the South, and racing would revive in the North and become centered there, especially in New York.

        By the late 19th century, African-American jockeys made up only about one-fourth of the riding population, but their ranks still included several of the top men in the sport. Isaac Murphy was the best known, winning an astounding 44 percent of his career races and counting three Kentucky Derby victories.

        Yet Mr. Murphy and Willie Simms are the only African-American jockeys to have been inducted into the American Racing Hall of Fame.

        Mr. Winkfield, who won more than 2,600 races and is one of just four men to win consecutive Kentucky Derbys, is one of the most notable men missing. He still owns the Derby's best career performance mark, based on a minimum of four rides — two victories, a second and third in four starts.

        Two strikes against him: He won the Derby when that race was at its lowest ebb, offering a $6,000 purse that was less even that that of the Latonia Derby. And he spent just five years (1899-1903) riding races in the United States before racial prejudice edged him and nearly every other black jockey off the American turf.

        “Another reason black jockeys have not won the attention they should is because almost no one in racing today knows anything about them,” Mr. Hotaling said. “You hand over these names to people in racing and get a complete blank stare.”

        The best proof comes from Mr. St. Julien's own admission: “I didn't know anything about that (era). Then people started comparing me to the past guys and I started reading up on it.”

Jimmy Winkfield rides Alan-A-Dale in 1902.
(Courtesy of Churchill Downs)
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Early love for horses

        Jimmy Winkfield was the 17th of 17 children, born in 1882 in Chilesburg, Ky., just outside of Lexington. As a child, he maintained a daily vigil between chores on the farm where his father was a sharecropper, watching the thoroughbreds parade down the roads.

        “He would jump the fence, go after a horse, and ride bareback,” Mrs. Casey said. “A stablehand or somebody saw him. And the way he rode and could communicate with the horse, they figured he should get a job around horses.”

        He came to Cincinnati in 1894 and lived with his brother and family on East Sixth Street, near Broadway. He would later rent an apartment in Cincinnati to use when he raced at Latonia Race Track in Covington and Queen City Race Track in Newport.

        As a 15-year-old in 1897, he went to work at Latonia for $8 a month and board. “I was rich,” he later said.

        On Aug. 10, 1898, he rode his first race. Aboard Jockey Joe at Chicago's Hawthorne Racetrack, he gunned his mount out of the gate and across the path of the three inside horses, trying to get to the rail. No one made it, and Mr. Winkfield's part in the demolition derby earned him a trip to the stewards.

        He said he was given a year's suspension, but records show that he finished second in a race aboard the same horse four weeks later at the Queen City track.

        He won his first race on Sept. 18, 1899. A half-year later, he was riding in the Kentucky Derby.

        He was praised in those days as a natural by famed Kentucky horse trader Col. Phil Chinn. “He had no particular style; he just sat up there like a piece of gold,” Col. Chinn said.

        “On the ground,” said an unnamed European horseman years later, “Winkfield was a perfect gentleman. But in the saddle he was a demon.”

        In 1901, at 19, he won his first Kentucky Derby aboard Eminence. He won 161 races that year, including key victories in the Latonia Derby (on Hernando) and Tennessee Derby (Royal Victor).

        But his triumph in the 1902 Kentucky Derby was, he would say, “the big one.”

        He did some maneuvering to get aboard the Derby-bound Alan-a-Dale. Even though the colt was unsound — because of bad legs, he was unraced as a 3-year-old before and after the 1902 Derby — Mr. Winkfield knew Alan-a-Dale was better than a stablemate, The Rival. The owner of those horses, Maj. Thomas Clay McDowell, had promised prominent white jockey Nash Turner his choice of mounts.

        So Mr. Winkfield deliberately “pulled” Alan-a-Dale, who turned in slow workout times, and Turner chose The Rival.

        Alan-a-Dale would take a huge lead, but his legs started weakening late in the race. As his lead dipped, Mr. Winkfield hung to the rail, because the track was soft with sand farther out. He was able to force the other horses into the deep sand and swerve to the finish to win by a nose.

        In 1903, he narrowly missed in his bid to win a third consecutive Derby, which no one ever has done. He made his move too soon aboard a horse aptly named Early, taking a 1 1/2-length lead, and the odds-on favorite came up empty in the stretch and lost by three-quarters of a length to 10-1 shot Judge Himes. He was in tears afterward, saying, “I lost my head,” and called the loss the worst of his career.

Liliane Casey will attend Saturday's Kentucky Derby. Here she holds a portrait of her father Jimmy.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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Turn for the worse

        Mr. Winkfield got a shot at a bigger prize that fall in the Futurity Stakes at Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay.

        It was a $60,000 race, richest in the country, and the favorite was High Ball, owned by Mr. Winkfield's former employer, Bub May. Mr. Winkfield had agreed to ride The Minute Man for prominent horseman John E. Madden, but right before the race, Mr. May offered Mr. Winkfield $3,000 to switch mounts, and he did.

        Neither of those horses won, and afterward, Mr. Madden told Mr. Winkfield, “I don't like to be double-crossed. If you're not going to ride my horses, you're not going to ride for anybody.”

        Mr. Madden had the power to enforce it. Plus, Mr. Winkfield's mounts were already dropping; he had 391 in 1902 and 223 in '03.

        Northern Kentucky University history professor Jim Claypool, Kentucky Derby expert for the Smithsonian and author of The Tradition Continues, a history of Latonia and Turfway race tracks, said the fact Mr. Winkfield rode meets at Queen City showed his dire need for races.

        “It was a rival to Old Latonia, but about three notches down,” Mr. Claypool said. “As opportunities for black jockeys dried up around the turn of the century, a lot had to go to these leaky-roof tracks. Here he is, he's won the Derby back-to-back, yet he's a regular rider at the Queen City track. He's got to make a living.”

        Competition for jockey jobs became more intense, and Mr. Claypool said white owners and trainers started to align with white jockeys. Racism also haunted black jockeys on the track. The August 1900 edition of The Thoroughbred Record described the “desperate measures” white jockeys were taking to knock out their rivals at Harlem Race Track near Chicago, with Mr. Winkfield once bruising his leg and his colt suffering cracked ribs when he was crowded into the fence. Mrs. Casey said her father received threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

        Fewer African-American jockeys were being cultivated. The great black riders had grown up on horse farms, or near them, but by 1910, many African-Americans were living in Northern cities. Racial prejudice and violence, lynchings and the Klan, contributed heavily to that migration, Mr. Hotaling said.

        From then through the late 1940s, African-American jockeys were excluded from the major tracks in the South due to Jim Crow practices.

        The ultimate blow came in 1908. Several years of lobbying by anti-gambling forces had reduced the number of American race tracks from 314 to 25. Then a bill was passed in New York that crippled its racing for three years and closed it down entirely in 1911 and '12. When racing was revived in 1913, the great black jockeys never came back.

        Mr. Winkfield would flee to Europe, but that wasn't unique. Money was luring many jockeys abroad, many of them white. Winnie O'Connor, the leading American jockey in 1901, and Joe Ransch, the leader the next year, spent 1903 riding in France. Many of the Americans stayed abroad.

        Ticking off Madden, though, was the key factor. “I left,” Mr. Winkfield would say, “because I got too smart for my pants.”

Taking work abroad

        In November 1903, Mr. Winkfield signed a deal to ride horses owned by Gen. Michel Lazareff, an Armenian oil magnate, in Russia in 1904. He was immediately successful, winning the Russian riding championship in his first year.

        In 1910, Mr. Winkfield left Russia and rode for a Polish prince and later a German baron. His reputation grew as he gained victories at all the major tracks in some of the world's most famous races, and by 1913 he was lured back to Russia by Leon Mantacheff, an Armenian with even more oil wells than Mr. Lazareff.

        Making roughly $100,000 a year, Mr. Winkfield enjoyed a suite in Moscow's National Hotel, employed a valet, and ate caviar for breakfast. He liked Russia because, he said, “I never had to pay no income tax.”

        Despite invitations, he never rode for the czar, Nicholas II, who he claimed “never paid his jockeys nothin'.” He said the czar wanted first-place finishes so badly that he often paid the jockey who finished second to the czar's horse.

        The Communist Revolution began, and all the top thoroughbreds were sent south to Odessa on the Black Sea. On April 4, 1919, revolutionaries were on the borders of the city. Mr. Winkfield and a Polish nobleman named Dossievski rounded up all the horses and set off for Poland.

        They were fired upon by villagers who mistook them for marauding Bolshevik troops. Others thought they were gypsies and refused to give them food.

        It would be a Tom Joad-like journey of more than 1,000 miles, through Romania to Belgrade, then north through Hungary and Czechoslovakia and halfway through Poland to Warsaw. Along the way, they would stop in fields and put on races for the townspeople in order to raise money to feed themselves and the horses.

        During lean times, Mr. Winkfield and his entourage survived by eating horse meat. After the nightmarish, 13-week trek, 50 of the 200 horses had been eaten or lost by other means.

        In 1920, Mr. Winkfield rejoined Mr. Mantacheff in Paris and rode for another 10 years. He married a Russian woman, Lydia de Minkiwitz, and as a wedding present his father-in-law built them a house and stable in Maisons-Laffitte, 12 miles northwest of Paris. In 1930, Mr. Winkfield retired as a jockey and launched a career as a trainer.

        In 1939, he sent Liliane to America because of the Nazi threat. She would live here with an aunt, Martha Bush, and graduate from Walnut Hills High School and Fisk University in Nashville. She married Dr. Edmund Casey, an internal medicine specialist, in 1946 and returned to Cincinnati in '54. (Dr. Casey died in 1997.)

        In 1940, the Germans invaded France, and Nazis used Mr. Winkfield's property to stable their horses. In 1941, he fled with his wife and son, Robert. They made their way to Lisbon, Portugal, and waited seven weeks before obtaining passage to America.

        They arrived in New York on April 30, 1941, almost penniless, and Mr. Winkfield took a job on a WPA road gang. Then 60, he put black shoe polish on his hair so he looked young enough to be hired.

        He returned to the race track as a groom, then as an exercise rider; hardly anyone knew his racing history. Then he again began to train horses.

        In 1953, he went back to France and opened a training school for jockeys with Robert.

        In 1961, when Sports Illustrated announced he would return to watch the Derby for the first time since 1903, the Turf Writers Association decided to honor him at its banquet in Louisville's Brown Hotel. But when Jimmy and Liliane showed up, they were told they couldn't use the front door.

        “Finally, they accepted us, but it was difficult,” Mrs. Casey said. “And after we got in, nobody would speak to us except Roscoe Goose, the other jockey there.”

        Mr. Winkfield died in France in 1974 at age 91.

Diversity returns

        Though blacks nearly disappeared from racing, other nationalities gradually entered the picture. Twelve of the top 23 jockeys on the 2001 North American money list were foreign-born: three from Panama; two each from Mexico, Peru and Venezuela; one each from Barbados, Puerto Rico and Canada.

        The Jockeys Guild, whose 831 members account for about 70 percent of all mounts, doesn't keep records of its members' ethnicity. But vice president Albert Fiss estimates that 40 percent of the Guild's members are Hispanic. Of the rest, he said all but “maybe eight percent” are Caucasian. That eight percent, he said, would equally include African-Americans. .

        Female jockeys make up 12 percent of the Guild's membership. Like African-Americans, they don't often succeed at the sport's highest levels. Last year, Rosemary Homeister ranked the highest, 54th, with earnings of $4.4 million (226 victories).

        Today, Mr. St. Julien stands nearly alone among African-Americans riding at a high level. His best year was 2000, when his mounts earned more than $5.8 million, ranking 33rd on the earnings list. Last year he won $3 million and ranked 82nd.

        “That era (when blacks starred) is just like a spot in the past that really wasn't recognized,” Mr. St. Julien said. “I'm very much respectful of that past. Just thinking about it makes me want to bring more success in their name.”

        Mrs. Casey knows the legacy, occasionally leafing through a scrapbook of articles about her father. Hall of Fame or no, she knows this: The man sucked out all the marrow of his 91 years.

        “He realized how fully his life had been, from nothing to the top, then back down to practically nothing, then to end up halfway,” she said. “He judged himself to have done so much. Which he had.”


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