As we get ready for the Kentucky Derby returning to its normal first weekend in May, it reminds me of the men who made the Derby a must-see event in the late 19th century. These men were the jockeys. In America in the 1800s, most if not all of the jockeys were Black. The owners of these prized thoroughbreds and fillies didn't send their sons out to race their horses like they would a polo match. These were hired help--well sometimes hired help--but proud men nonetheless, who groomed, trained, and yes, raced these proud animals who were bred to run.
One of the most lauded jockeys of the time was Mr. Isaac Burns Murphy. In a time when there was no NFL, before James Naismith hung up his first peach basket, and before baseball even, horse racing was a major sporting event, and arguably America's pasttime.
And Isaac Murphy was its biggest winner. Never using a crop or whip, he talked his steeds around the track and won almost half the races he entered. He was an international mega star, the LeBron James of his day. Although he died at the young age of 35 in 1896, he'd amassed a huge amount of wealth and fame.
In fact, the Black jockeys like Murphy got so much honor and prize money
that they were eventually pushed out of the sport after the turn of the last century. There was no collective bargaining, no unions to protect their stake at the track. And today, you'll rarely see a Black face trotting into the starting gates, much less the winner's circles of big races 100 years later.
So as I raise my julep this week, I toast the brave men who put American horse racing on the map. Cheers to the Black jockeys, you are not forgotten!