When racing fans think of Travers-winning jockeys, they might think of Chris McCarron or Jerry Bailey, who each won Saratoga’s flagship race three times. They might think of Javier Castellano, Braulio Baeza, Eddie Arcaro, or Pat Day, who won it four times.
They probably wouldn’t think of Shelby Barnes.
Shelby “Pike” Barnes won the Travers only once, aboard Long Dance in 1889, riding for owner and trainer G.M. Rye. But that one win may be as historically significant as winning the race multiple times, coming as it did during a two-year span that saw Barnes as the most successful jockey in the country.
Barnes was one of the many black jockeys who ascended to the sport’s highest level, but unlike some of his contemporary counterparts, his name seldom appears in discussions of racing’s history. Even in articles and books dedicated to the prominence of black jockeys, Barnes’s story is curiously absent, though his induction into the Hall of Fame by the historical review committee in 2011 brought him to the attention of a larger racing audience.
Born in 1871 in Beaver Dam, Kentucky, Barnes came to racing at the height of the success of the black jockey. Growing up working with horses on farms and plantations, former slaves and their children made the transition from riding races for their owners to riding races for themselves, garnering both financial and popular success. In the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, 13 of 15 jockeys were black, and black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 runnings of that race.
While the stories of Isaac Murphy and Jimmy Winkfield, black jockeys who rose to national and international fame, are well documented, Barnes’ early life is largely obscure. By the late 1880’s, though, his name was regularly in the newspapers as the winning rider en route to his national riding title in 1888.
Used to race recaps that detail jockeys’ techniques and offer post-race quotes from riders, contemporary readers might be frustrated by the lack of information provided by 19th century accounts. Jockeys’ first names are seldom listed, and only occasionally are race details offered; reporters weren’t talking to Barnes in the winner’s circle about how he rode the race. So while those recaps tell how frequently Barnes won, they reveal little about the man doing the winning.
Standing out, though, are the descriptions of stunning bursts of speed associated with Barnes’ riding style; an 1889 article refers to him as the “lightning light-weight,” and in writing about Barnes’ retirement from racing in 1891, the New York Times spoke of “his forte being the riding of well-timed and dazzling finishes.”
We know that by the time he was 17 years old, Barnes was riding in New York and setting records. The apex of his career came in 1888 and 1889, when he was the nation’s leading rider. In 1888, Barnes led all North American riders with 206 wins, becoming the first jockey to top 200 wins in a year. George Covington, in second place, won only 95 races, while the wins that year by future Hall of Fame jockeys Jimmy McLaughlin (who himself won the Travers four times), Edward “Snapper” Garrison, and Isaac Murphy combined didn’t equal the number of Barnes’ victories.
Among Barnes’ noteworthy 1888 wins was the first running of the Futurity, the richest race in the country with more than $40,000 going to the winner. Barnes rode Proctor Knott, who would be named two-year-old champion.
The following year, Barnes repeated as North America’s leading jockey with 170 wins, two of which came in major stakes races at Saratoga. He was no stranger to the winner’s circle at the Old Spa.
The Travers was run on opening day of the 1889 meeting, and Barnes won two of the six races carded that day. Run at 1 3/4 miles, the Travers was an unremarkable race, attracting only two starters labeled “very commonplace” in a contemporary account, and Long Dance won it by six lengths. Barnes was aboard again when Long Dance won the 2-mile Kenner by a neck later in the meeting.
Barnes came back to Saratoga in 1890 to win another of the Spa’s biggest races when he piloted Sinaloa II to a win in the Alabama on August 5. He won the Kearny Stakes the same day, both wins coming for owner E.J “Lucky” Baldwin’s Santa Anita stable. A week later, Barnes won again with Sinaloa II in the United States Hotel Stakes.
Earlier that summer, Barnes had added two more important New York stakes to his resumé when he guided Burlington to wins in both the Belmont Stakes and Brooklyn Derby. Yet despite all of his successes in 1890, it was a win in Chicago that summer that was to have the most significant effect on his career.
On July 8, 1890, Barnes was riding Santiago in the Drexel Stakes at Washington Park. In front of him, “a light-weight boy, Abbas” (as was common, no first name is given in multiple accounts) was riding Noretta, who fell as the horses turned for home. The hooves of Barnes’ mount struck Abbas, fatally injuring him.
The incident was the beginning of the end of Barnes’s career. According to contemporary reports, turf writers accused Barnes of running over Abbas in order to win the race, saying that if Barnes had pulled up his mount, Abbas would have lived. Though an investigation later cleared Barnes of any wrongdoing, he had lost, according to one writer, “his old-time dash and courage,” and with it, the ability to win with those fabulous finishes.
Speculation abounded about what Barnes feared on the track: another situation in which he might injure someone? Or the possibility that other jockeys would try to exact retribution for Abbas’ death? Barnes wouldn’t say; reportedly, he refused to speak about the incident.
Rumors began to swirl about his integrity; Baldwin, for whom he rode frequently, began to suspect that his long-time jockey was acting in concert with bookmakers. It was alleged that the collaboration allowed him to avoid the sort of daring riding that would put him, or others, at risk.
At least one person stuck up for Barnes, coincidentally a man who was also inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011 through historical review. Matthew Byrnes attributed the decline in Barnes’ riding to the physical difficulty of the jockey having to reduce so much to make weight.
Whatever drove him from the sport, Barnes announced his retirement in 1891; he wasn’t yet 21 years old. His departure from racing coincided with the beginning of the decline of the black jockey in America. By the turn of the last century, racism and intimidation began to push black jockeys off the Northern tracks; white jockeys, often envious of the success, riches, and celebrity of African-American riders, created threatening conditions both on and off the racetrack. Literally fearing for their lives as white riders tried to drop them from their mounts during races, black jockeys abandoned the sport.
Barnes rode professionally for only six years, but he made a mark on the sport that was finally recognized four years ago. The Daily Racing Form called him “a fearless rider of great skill and judgment” during his best years, and following his win aboard Tenny in the Brooklyn Derby, he was, according to the contemporary account, greeted with a “great volume of cheers…when he was carried off on the shoulders of his admirers seated in a great floral horseshoe.”
No amount of skill could combat the social and personal forces that drove Barnes from the saddle. Unheralded for more than a century, he joins in the Hall of Fame the scores of jockeys recognized for their accomplishments on the turf. In 1917, the Daily Racing Form published a eulogy of sorts for black riders, noting the achievements of, among others, Isaac Murphy and Tony Hamilton. The article suggested that Barnes was the last great black jockey, an estimation that is unfortunately still true nearly a century later. “None of his race,” wrote the author of Barnes, “has since achieved the eminence the colored rider had achieved.”
Originally published in the 2011 Travers program.