African-Americans were the early superstars of Thoroughbred racing, dominating the sport from the mid-seventeenth century to the early twentieth century. In the antebellum years, slaves were often responsible for training and caring for their owners’ horses. But as the sport of horse racing began to gain in popularity in the United States from the mid-eighteenth century onward, skilled black horsemen were highly valued as trainers and jockeys. Records indicate that even as early as the late eighteenth century, some slave jockeys actually gained their freedom as a result of their excellent riding abilities.
By the mid-19th century, black jockeys virtually ruled the profession, riding in circuits from Louisiana to New York. In 1875 at the inaugural running of the Kentucky Derby, 13 of the 15 riders were African-Americans. African-American jockey Oliver Lewis rode Aristides to a two-length victory in the first Kentucky Derby. Other notable African-American riders include Isaac Murphy, victorious in 628 races out of 1,412 in which he rode. James Perkins, better known as “Soup,” for his love of soup, began riding in 1891 at age 11 and won the 1895 Derby aboard Halma as a 15-year-old to join fellow African-American jockey Alonzo Clayton as the youngest winning riders of the race. Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton rode a horse named Redstone in his first race as a jockey in 1890. He is only one of three African-American jockeys to compete in the Preakness and he finished third in 1896. Willie Simms won two Kentucky Derbys: in 1896 aboard Ben Brush and in 1898 with Plaudit. He also was the nation’s leading jockey in 1893 and 1894 and was the first American jockey to win a race with an American horse at an English race course. He is credited with introducing the short stirrup riding style to England in the 1890’s. Jimmy Winkfield won back-to-back Kentucky Derbys in 1901 on His Eminence and 1902 on Alan-A-Dale. He was the last black jockey to win a Kentucky Derby.
At Belair, African-Americans were an integral part of farm operations. Stallion men, shed foreman and grooms cared for the Woodward thoroughbreds. Charles and Henry Thomas worked for Belair and Charles was Nashua’s handler. Mr. Woodward’s most valued stable employee was Andrew Jackson, a former slave born in Kentucky in the late 1850s. Mr. Woodward hired Andrew in 1900 and it was his keen eye for horses that prompted Mr. Woodward to purchase Captain Hancock, the $60 stud horse, as well as the three $100 mares that essentially launched the Belair Stud. Andrew was the trainer of record for Belair’s first race victory with Aile d’Or at the Marlboro Track in 1909. When Andrew died in 1932, Mr. Woodward erected the tombstone on Andrew’s grave at the Sacred Heart Church cemetery in honor of Jackson.
Although African-Americans were sought to ride and train race horses, they were not completely free of the racial prejudices that were prevalent in the United States at the time. The most controversial image associated with African-Americans and horse racing is the lawn jockey. Legend has it that General George Washington commissioned a statue in honor of his young black groom, Tom Graves, who held a lantern for Washington’s troops as they crossed the Delaware. Upon Washington’s return from the voyage, he found his groom frozen to death, the reins of troop horses still in his hands.
By the time of the Civil War, lawn jockeys dotted landscapes throughout the south and had multiple functions. In some instances they were used as hitching posts for horses. They also suggested that the residents of a property had money. Their most important role was as signals in the Underground Railroad. A lawn jockey holding a green ribbon represented safe passage while a red ribbon symbolized danger.
However, not all lawn jockeys were representative of good taste. Many of the black-faced statues were offensive caricatures of African-Americans, reminders of the virulent racism in the United States.
Belair had its own lawn jockey. Dressed in the Belair silks of white shirt with red polka dots, the figure was once located in the center of the courtyard behind the Stables.
Today, the story of African-Americans in horse racing is being unearthed and retold to a new generation of Americans who do not know of the gloried history of America’s first great athletes.
Source: Belair Stable Museum