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Saturday, June 10, 2023

George B. ‘Spider’ Anderson: First Winning African American Preakness Jockey and a Baltimorean

Six years after the end of the Civil War, in 1871, Baltimore City built the fourth of eleven large public marketplaces, the Lafayette Market, in this case, to primarily serve the needs of West Baltimore’s large African American community.  

Situated in neighborhoods throughout the city, these facilities were the “supermarkets” of their time that offered local farmers, merchants, and craftsmen centrally located venues to peddle their produce, livestock, wares, and services, and for a long time previously, some traded enslaved humans. The oldest, still open for business today, is Lexington Market, built in 1782.

It was also on the west side of Baltimore that year that the first of only two African American jockeys to win the Preakness Stakes in its 150-year history was born, George B. “Spider” Anderson, to parents Charley and Ellen Anderson. Though not much about his early life is known, George had four siblings: older sister Gussie; younger sisters, Rosie and Feby; and younger brother, Charley.

Archives reveal that George Anderson grew up in a neighborhood within the vicinity north of Mt. Vernon and south of Madison Park. Nicknamed “Spider” because of his small stature of eighty pounds, he was racing horses by age twelve. George had a reputation for honesty, demonstrating clever riding skills and the determination to win. As an 18-year-old in 1889, George set a record with his win at the first Preakness Stakes that continues to be outstanding after one-and-a-half centuries.  

Anderson’s achievement continues to astound because his winning time, 2:17.5 (two minutes, seventeen and a half seconds), on a one-and-a-quarter mile track, ran the race on his three-year-old stallion, Buddhist, at an unprecedented average speed of 48 feet per second, winning the race by eight lengths.

A lesser-known historic fact regarding the 1889 Preakness Stakes is that there was only one other horse in the race besides Anderson’s. Spider’s horse, Buddhist, actually had no opposition until just prior to post time. Perhaps as a face-saving gesture, Maryland Governor, Oden Bowie, who was responsible for the construction of Pimlico, entered his own horse, Japhet.

There is an unresolved controversy regarding a physical altercation between Spider Anderson and one of his coaches, James Cook, on that day of the first Preakness Stakes race, May 10, 1889. Anderson apparently smacked Cook over the head with a whip. 

There is speculation that Cook, a friend of Governor Bowie, may have said or done something that caused Anderson to question his allegiances. Was George asked to take a “dive” so to speak, to purposely lose the race so as not to cause the governor further embarrassment for staging a one-horse race in the inaugural Preakness Stakes?

There is no evidence Anderson faced any legal consequences associated with his assault on James Cook, presumably a white man, as he was a personal friend of the governor, making one wonder whether it was part of a cover-up to keep something nefarious hidden that Cook may have proposed to Anderson regarding the race.  

Anderson would go on to achieve notable successes in subsequent races. In 1891, George Anderson was victorious in the Alabama Stakes at the Saratoga Race Course in Upstate New York, breaking his Preakness Stakes speed record by more than three-quarters of a second, running 47.236 feet per second on a one-and-one-eighth mile track, finishing at 2:05.75.

Various sources have reported that George Anderson finished first in the Philip H. Iselin Handicap at the Monmouth Race Course in Oceanport, New Jersey in 1891. However, no additional details— the horse’s name, run times, etcetera— could be found to substantiate this win. Moreover, according to a Wikipedia citation, it was thoroughbred Banquet, ridden by jockey, John Lamley, who won the race in question at a time of two minutes, four seconds on a one-and-a-half-mile track.                                   

Despite the confusion over this one race, Anderson is considered among the top jockeys, Black or white, in thoroughbred racing history. Riding top-notch horses for some of the most prominent stable owners of his day, George continued winning races nationally until at least 1897.  

The exact dates are unclear, but at some point, Anderson retired as a jockey and began owning and raising horses himself. Occasional newspaper accounts of Anderson’s exploits appeared until around 1905, after that, he basically disappeared from public view. The circumstances of is his death are unknown.

Dr. Kenneth Cohen, a professor of early American history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, says Anderson’s fate is not atypical for Black jockeys of that era, referring to Anderson’s career as “short and illustrious.”  

Cohen believes that as significant as Anderson’s Preakness success is, how he was banished from thoroughbred horseracing history is also very significant, pointing out that for a person of Anderson’s popular stature, being excised is odd because he was regularly cited in racing news of that day when it was owners who were usually spotlighted. Cohen surmises that as an admired celebrity, Anderson’s abrupt expungement from historic journals is even more unusual.

Though he acknowledges he is speculating, Dr. Cohen makes a stark assertion: “It’s hard to imagine a white jockey similarly disappearing.” Professor Cohen’s allusion to race as a factor in George Anderson’s “disappearance” is also not atypical for African American jockeys during this period, as it has become widely known as a historic fact that jockeys of color, industry-wide, were purged from the sport due to Caucasian jockeys’ race-inspired envy of their superstar fame and fortune, buttressed by Jim Crow.

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