Horse Racing

The reign of the black jockey

Black jockeys used to dominate horse racing – so why aren’t we seeing more diversity at this year’s races?

Historically, horse racing was dominated by African-American riders – but a racist past (and present) managed to obscure the proud history of black jockeys.

Every jockey wants to ride in the Derby, wants to trot out of the tunnel to My Old Kentucky Home. Marlon St. Julien sometimes still cries when thinking about his experience riding Curule in 2000.

“It’s like a high I’ll never get again,” the 44-year-old said. “I kept saying to myself, ‘Are you really riding the Derby?’ I couldn’t believe it.”

He didn’t know it, at the time, but St. Julien was the first black jockey to race in the Kentucky Derby in 79 years. He found out from a New York Times reporter.

So, what happened to the black jockeys?

After 1921, no black jockeys participated in the Kentucky Derby. Pellom McDaniels III, author of “The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy,” asserted that the Great Migration, racism and the media contributed to the vanishing.

“The politics of whiteness allows for those that are immigrants who are Europeans to claim whiteness to juxtapose themselves against blackness,” McDaniels said. “They’re using the media to both denigrate, dehumanize and put in their place these men who are doing these phenomenal things.”

Salute to the Black Jockeys

On the corner of Lampton and South Clay Street in Louisville, Kentucky, sits the Shirley Mae Café. In May 1989, Shirley Mae Beard started the Salute to the Black Jockeys Who Pioneered the Kentucky Derby.

“It’s been so many rewarding things that have come out of this since we started this and made people aware that there were black jockeys and how talented they were,” Beard said.

Celebrities such as actress Whoopi Goldberg and actor Morgan Freeman attended the festivities.

In 2015, Churchill Downs had the first race in the name of a black jockey, the William Walker Stakes, and the winner took home the Isaac Burns Murphy Award.