This week’s excerpt from my book, On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Journey Across America brings Miles Dean to Kentucky where he honored the black jockeys, America’s first athletes.
From Ch. 11: In the Saddle with Jimmy Winkfield
…It’s a cool day in May 1875, the first Kentucky Derby. Ten thousand racing fans watch in anticipation as 15 jockeys (13 of them black) on horseback approach a line drawn in the dirt. As drums tap, the red flag is lowered, timekeepers click their stopwatches, and the race begins. Jockeys, vying for the best position, steer their horses, thundering around the track. Ending only two minutes, 37 and three-quarter seconds later, Oliver Lewis, astride a chestnut mount named Aristides, crosses the finish line and into horse-racing history. Fans roar as Lewis, a garland of red roses adorning his neck, takes a celebratory lap around the track. …
After Lewis’ victory in the first Derby, black jockeys claimed the title 15 times over the next 28 years. William “Billy” Walker, age 17, in 1877, followed by Isaac Murphy, in 1884, 1890, and 1891, then Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton, at 15 the youngest to win in 1892, followed by James “Soup” Perkins, who began racing at age 11 and won the 1895 Derby. Willie Simms won in 1896 and 1898.
And then there was Jimmy Winkfield. Born the youngest of 17 children in 1882 in Kentucky, Winkfield was smaller than most boys his age. His parents, poor sharecroppers, farmed land owned by someone else. All the children worked. After chores, he would watch thoroughbreds parade between the farms and the racetrack in nearby Lexington, pretending to be a jockey, using a wooden workbench as his horse.
By the 1899 racing season, Winkfield took 14 wins. The next year, 1900, he rode in his first Kentucky Derby. Wearing orange-and-blue silks, Winkfield rode out on his horse, Thrive, and placed third. He went on to win another 160 races in 1901, including the Derby astride His Eminence. In the next year’s Kentucky Derby, 1902, Winkfield rode Alan-a-Dale and won, the only back-to-back Derby wins. He nearly won again in 1903. …
On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Ride Across America combines Dean’s memoir- his dreams of becoming a cowboy, his years as a high school and college athlete, and his cross-country journey, with the historical figures, many unsung, he visited as he traveled.
It’s non-fiction and a perfect book for book group reading or to share with middle school and high school students or to read aloud to younger children. I wrote an Educators’ Guide that includes cross-disciplinary activities in writing, art, drama, geography, math and a character education platform, “The Horseman’s Creed.”