In a 2012 CNN exposé, “The Forgotten Godfathers of Black American Sport,” Sheena McKenzie examined how the post-Civil War-pre-Jim Crow horseracing industry, then a nearly exclusive vocation for African American jockeys, had dwindled to less than three dozen riders nationally, of nearly 800 currently registered jockeys.
“Today you’d struggle to find an African American jockey on a U.S. race track. Just 30 of [roughly] 750 members of the National Jockey’s Guild are Black,” according to McKenzie’s CNN report. African American jockeys have gone from domination to decimation in American horseracing, representing only 4% of professional riders today.
As in other instances during and since slavery, when African Americans turned garbage into gold, former slaves elevated thoroughbred racing to an artform despite being conscripted by slave owners as jockeys due to the perilous nature of racing horses for sport in the mid-1800’s.
Not only were African American jockeys the original “horse whisperers,” able to harmoniously engage with their steeds, but they were able to develop a synergy that allowed them to function and perform as one with a horse, effectively channeling their mutual energies toward finishing first – efficiently and consistently.
Moreover, the early success of African American jockeys was further buttressed by the expertise of their support crews, also African Americans, who bred, trained, conditioned and groomed the racehorses. These horse handlers were unsung but just as professional, and integral to the jockey’s success at the finish line.
The very first Kentucky Derby Stakes, in 1875, was won by a renowned African American jockey, Oliver Lewis, at age 19. Maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise since 13 of the 15 jockeys competing in that race were African American. Fifteen of the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby Stakes were won by African American jockeys. However, the last African American jockey to win the Kentucky Derby was over 120 years ago in 1902 by 19-year-old James Winkfield, who also won the sweepstakes in 1901.
Twenty years after Winkfield’s first Kentucky Derby win, 1921, the last African American jockey would compete in the prestigious Churchill Downs sweepstakes for the duration of the 20th century. Since 1921, only two African American jockeys have competed in the Kentucky Derby stakes: Marlon St Julien in 2000 and Kevin Krigger in 2013.
Besides seeing a previously spectacular display of African American athleticism essentially stolen as many of the culture’s contributions have over the centuries, your great, great grandchild’s visit to The Baltimore Times’ history portal would also provide them a glimpse of the admiration, even if fleeting, that the larger society had for African American sports heroes then.
African American jockey’s success earned them cultural adulation and financial wealth comparable to today’s sports superstars. Isaac Burns Murphy was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times, in 1884, 1890 and 1891. By 1887, he was arguably the highest-paid athlete in the U.S., the first millionaire black athlete and in some quarters considered the best professional jockey of all time.
Some estimates say Isaac Murphy won 44% of his races, while the consensus accepts his success rate on the track being at least one win in three outings. An anonymous sports writer wrote about Murphy at the time: “He has a steady hand, a quick eye, a cool head, and a bold heart.” Not only did Mr. Burns employ a Caucasian valet, his purchase of a large home in Lexington, Kentucky was covered on the front page of the June 13, 1887 edition of the New York Times.
The prevalence and good fortune of African American jockeys began to wane around the turn of the century. After 1900, the backlash of racism exercised through Jim Crow laws, and the lucrative lure of horseracing was attracting Caucasian riders who employed racist threats and physical intimidation to drive African American jockeys out of the sport.
There were frequent accounts of African American jockeys and their horses being steered against the rail, and sometimes shoved over during races. Horse owners began to deny opportunities to African American jockeys, less concerned about the rider’s well-being as much as they were concerned about possible injury to their expensive thoroughbreds.
Although Black jockeys were the first thoroughbred horse racers at the introduction of the sport in America, and the original superstars who dominated the track for decades early on, at least history recorded many of their magnificent accomplishments.
An even more little-known historical fact of horseracing history is the mostly unsung accomplishments of several Black female jockeys and trainers. Eliza Carpenter, Sylvia Rideoutt Bishop, and Ms. Cheryl White are three Black women who rose to fame in the sport.
In the mid-1800s Eliza Carpenter, born as a slave, eventually became a racehorse owner and jockey. By eight years old, Eliza had been enslaved by three different slaveholders in three different states – Missouri, Kentucky and Virginia. After the Civil War, newly free, she returned to Kentucky, and learned the business of buying, breeding, training and riding racehorses.
Not only was Eliza Carpenter the single Black stable owner in Oklahoma, she was one of the few in the entire West and the only African-American racehorse owner in America, with a reputation for no no-nsense when it came to collecting her winning bets in horse races.
According to legend, when a white man once hedged on his bet with her, the Baltimore Afro-American reported that fisticuffs broke out, describing that “two blows were struck—one when Aunt Eliza landed a blow squarely to the jaw and the second when the man hit the ground.”
In the early 20th century, the next female African American thoroughbred phenomenon emerged, Sylvia Rideout Bishop. Born in 1920, Ms. Bishop’s place of birth is unclear, while the Chronicle of African Americans in the Horse Industry has as a native of Baltimore, Maryland, the source mentions, and other references suggest she’s from Charles Town, West Virginia.
Sylvia’s parents were James H. and Barbara Snowden Rideout. All three of her brothers worked as horse grooms and her four sisters all married trainers or jockeys. Since thirteen, Ms. Bishop was a regular at horse tracks and stables. At seventeen years old, Sylvia quit school and became an exercise rider and groomer. She also married a horse trainer.
However, her ties to Baltimore via the Pimlico Racecourse are clear. Ms. Rideout bred winning horses all along the Eastern Seaboard over her career as a trainer.
Ms. Bishop, the first Black woman licensed in the United States to train horses, was featured in a 1961 cover story in Ebony magazine, The “Lady Horse Trainer,” detailing her many first achievements in thoroughbred horse training. Bishop was honored at the African American Heritage Society’s tribute to Black horsemen at Pimlico Racecourse in 1991. She passed away in 2004.
The most recent Black female thoroughbred jockey whose career extended into the 21st century was Ms. Cheryl White rode her first horse race as the first Black licensed jockey cowgirl in the nation.
On September 2, 1971, she rode her father’s horse, Jetolara, to victory at Waterford Park in Chester, West Virginia, to become the first Black woman in American thoroughbred racing history to cross the finish line first.
After more than 20 years as a professional jockey who earned nearly one million dollars and won over 225 races, she retired from thoroughbred racing. Ms. White’s final ride was in 2014 aboard Macho Spaces at Pimlico Racecourse in Baltimore, Maryland. Ms. Cheryl White passed away on September 20, 2019, at age 65.