Holiday Mondays are a beautiful thing. Many of us get a day off, and the racing fans among us often get a chance to get to the track or place a few wagers at tracks that are ordinarily shuttered on Mondays. Aqueduct, Santa Anita, and Gulfstream Park will all be open tomorrow, but only one of those tracks – Aqueduct – explicitly acknowledges in its racing card the reason for the holiday.
As it has for the last seven years, Aqueduct is running the Jimmy Winkfield, at six furlongs for 3-year-olds. Formerly known as the Best Turn, the race was inaugurated in 1985 and re-christened in 2005 to honor the last black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, one of only five jockeys to win back-to-back Derbies.
In a December 2004 interview with NPR’s Tavis Smiley, John Lee, who was at that time director of broadcasting at NYRA, talked about the decision to name a race after Winkfield:
There had been an idea floating around that we really should name the stakes race we run on Martin Luther King, Jr. day for an African-American racing figure, and it had been a little bit on the back burner, and Jimmy Winkfield going into the Hall of Fame this year… helped push things along. And a key guy in moving it along was Coach Mike Jarvis, formerly of St John’s…he’s also a member of our New York Racing Association board of trustees…He…put it on the agenda for the next board of trustees meeting. He got a very receptive hearing from the chairman of the board, Barry K. Schwartz, and starting in 2005, we have the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes.
We’re really looking forward to making the most out of looking back at history and maybe making up for a little lost time in honoring one of the all time greats…
Little of Winkfield’s life took place in New York. Born and raised in Kentucky, he came here in June 1900 to try to move beyond the smaller tracks at which he’d been riding in Kentucky and the mid-West. His first stop was the Sheepshead Bay track, but his welcome was anything but hospitable. As Joe Drape details in Black Maestro, his biography of Winkfield, the jockey’s skill was secondary to the color of his skin:
An Anti-Colored Union was in place, with the goal of running the black riders off the racetrack. It had begun earlier in the year at the Queens County track when the white jockeys…put the word out that if owners wanted to take home first-place purses, they’d best not ride the colored jockeys…Sometimes [the white jockeys] pocketed, or surrounded, a black jockey until they could ride him into and over the rail. Their whips found the thighs, hands, and face of the colored boy next to them more often than the horse they were riding. Every day a black rider ended up in the dirt; and every day racing officials looked the other way.
Winkfield’s attempt to crack the New York riding colony was short-lived, according to Drape:
In two weeks, he managed three mounts, winning with one of them and finishing third on the others. No one missed him when he returned to Newport, Kentucky, and the Queen City track for the July Fourth weekend.
Winkfield’s major successes (other than those Derby wins) took place outside of the United States, primarily in Russia, where the jockey found success both on and off the racetrack, becoming a celebrity and marrying into the Russian aristocracy. His influence on American racing ended in 1904, the year that he left this country. He was 22 years old.
Winkfield was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2004; the following year, Representative Bobby Rush of Illinois sponsored a resolution honoring Winkfield and celebrating “the significant contributions and excellence of African American jockeys and trainers in the sport of horse racing and in the history of the Kentucky Derby.” The release for the resolution is dated May 6, 2005; the Derby was the next day.
It appears that no other track in the country commemorates Winkfield in a race named for him, at least not in 2011; while it might be odd that a state in which the man rode three times named a stakes for him, it’s worth noting that few races are named after jockeys, with most of those eponymous honors going to horses, trainers, and racing executives. We can thank NYRA and Jarvis for stepping in to make sure that the role of African-American jockeys in the sport’s history isn’t forgotten.
Many thanks to Dan Silver and Jenny Kellner of NYRA and to John Lee for their help in pointing me towards sources.
A wealth of resources exists on Winkfield. Here are just a few:
“A Racing Legend, Remembered,” CBS Evening News feature, January 18, 2005; the segment profiles Winkfield and discusses the first running of the Jimmy Winkfield at Aqueduct
“Book Chronicles Life of Blacklisted Horse Jockey,” Tavis Smiley Show, interviews with Edward Hotaling and John Lee, December 13, 2004.
Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend, by Joe Drape, published by William Morrow in 2006.
Congressional Resolution honoring Winkfield and black jockeys and trainers
Jimmy Winkfield’s Hall of Fame page.
Jimmy Winkfield Stakes page at NYRA.
“Legacy of Jimmy Winkfield Lives on at Aqueduct,” Jenny Kellner for the New York Racing Association, January 17, 2008.
Previous Brooklyn Backstretch posts on Jimmy Winkfield
“Pilloried at the Post,” by Charles Hirshberg. Sports Illustrated review of Black Maestro, published June 26, 2006.
The Great Black Jockeys: The Lives and Times of the Men Who Dominated America’s First Sport, by Edward Hotaling, published by Forum in 1999.
Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield, by Ed Hotaling, published by McGraw-Hill in 2005.