The Kentucky Derby’s Lost Generation

African American jockeys once dominated — or even, some say launched — horse racing in America. Ron Stodghill travels to Churchill Downs to uncover the sport’s hidden history, and discovers his own family secrets along the way.

Words by Ron Stodghill
Paintings by Riley Holloway

Paintings by Riley Holloway, photo reference: Keeneland Library Cook Collection.

Shirley Mae Beard, soul food chef and unofficial mayor of the Smoketown section of Louisville, Kentucky, was sitting in her wheelchair near the kitchen doorway at her namesake restaurant, enveloped in the aroma of collard greens, fried chicken, and candied yams. It was after 9 on a Sunday night in Smoketown, a hardscrabble neighborhood, and the dinner crowd at her restaurant — a lingering mix of black homegrowns and white suburbanites — had begun to disperse. Shirley Mae, cloaked in an apron and hairnet, was regaling me with stories from her modest landmark, Shirley Mae’s Café. She keeps stories filed away for slow moments like this, easy microwavable tales, like the time she looked up and, heaven help her, there was Morgan Freeman strolling in solo for supper, which he did again and again for the next three days straight, placing the same order each time. “Fried chicken, turnip greens, mac and cheese, and blackberry cobbler with ice cream on it,” she recalled. Each night, Freeman uttered nary a word, until finally, on his third night, the Oscar winner summoned his cook, and, mouth full, mumbled a verdict: “Tastes just like my grandma’s.” He stood, hugged Shirley Mae, and then got back to eating.

Shirley Mae, in her 80s, is a born raconteur and, when it suits her, isn’t above name-dropping. Indeed, celebrity photographs cover the restaurant’s walls, from Whoopi to Oprah to B.B. King, patrons she counts as friends. But perhaps more than even her homemade fixin’s, Shirley Mae’s social activism is what draws them; more specifically, her struggle to promote and preserve the history of arguably the most overlooked heroes in American sport: the late African American Thoroughbred jockey. Even some of the most die-hard sports enthusiasts don’t know that African American jockeys once dominated the sport; in fact, 13 of the 15 jockeys to compete in the first Kentucky Derby were African Americans. Black jockeys won 15 of the Kentucky Derby’s first 28 runnings, with the best of the lot, Isaac Burns Murphy, winning three Derbys himself.

Back in 1989, Shirley Mae became a kind of front-runner in telling the history of late African American jockeys when she launched “Salute to the Black Jockeys Who Pioneered the Kentucky Derby,” initially a free community festival (she depleted her retirement savings to pay for the week-long event) featuring amusement park rides, games, tournaments, a petting zoo, and other activities. It was an urge that came to her when she visited the Kentucky Derby Museum and noticed that, instead of illustrations of jockeys, there were simply illustrations of horses. She was familiar with some black jockey history from a set of World Book Encyclopedias she had purchased in the 1960s. When Shirley Mae, along with her daughter Theresa, prodded the museum curators for information about the jockeys, they produced a trove of history on black jockeys that had been boxed away in the museum basement. Shirley Mae had never been particularly interested in horses or racing — or even the Derby, for that matter — but she was deeply troubled that such a rich chapter of black history was being ignored.

Jockey Isaac Burns Murphy rides close to his opponent in this turn-of-the-century race. Keeneland Library Hemment Collection.

I had come to Kentucky to learn about this whitewash, not just from Shirley Mae but from other historians, horse racing experts, and equine enthusiasts who over the past couple of decades have dedicated themselves to exploring and celebrating the pioneers behind America’s first professional sport. Many, like Shirley Mae, are ordinary citizens building grassroots awareness through community activities and educational events, while others, such as historian Amy Beisel, are digging through archives and conducting field interviews for scholarly articles and museum exhibits that document the era. Still others, such as Ron Mack, a former University of Kentucky linebacker, are leveraging the groundswell to build a pipeline for students into careers in the state’s estimated $4 billion horse racing and equestrian industry.

Shirley Mae may be the most colorful of the bunch. “I’m just a plain old simple woman who wanted them to do our men right,” she likes to say. But there she is, community matriarch and political gadfly, armed with only her good old common sense and a high school education, going toe-to-toe with Louisville’s power brokers, pushing the state’s mostly lily-white institutions — including the Kentucky Derby and its vaunted Churchill Downs Raceway — to recognize the achievements of the sport’s first jockeys.

She says her crusade has less to do with sports than exposing yet another racist oversight in a nation that for generations has systemically denied people of color credit for their accomplishments, hence denying their value to humanity. The long-term effects show up in the stats: in unemployment, substance abuse, crime rates, and so on. Even more, I think, the real damage is an inability, and an unwillingness, to see good in ourselves — even when we’re making history. “The good Lord gave black men such a gift,” she said. “You take a black man and he can do just about anything he puts his heart and mind to. Yes, he can. It’s just that simple.”

Spectators at the Kentucky Derby, 1955. Photo by Ralph Morse.

I should admit now that through the years, I have harbored a healthy — and not entirely rational — contempt for black jockeys. Not for them personally, but rather the idea of them. Growing up as a proud black Northern kid, just hearing the word “jockey” (save the underwear brand) flooded my head with racist images of those bug-eyed, red-lipped statues I saw decorating white folks’ yards during summer vacations down South. I’ve since heard the debates: how I should celebrate those little Sambos as artifacts of the Underground Railroad that saved lives by clandestinely signaling danger or safety to escaped slaves. Maybe so. Still, I’ve never quite been able to shake their modern use to romanticize the Jim Crow era of black fear and servitude. Lawn jockeys, race jockeys, porch monkeys — all the same to me.

On top of that, it didn’t help that my dad spent a good part of his life — and my childhood — at the racetrack. Dad was in his younger years a raceway fixture, a consummate horseman at Hazel Park Raceway outside Detroit and Fairmount Park near St. Louis. At one point, despite Mom’s protests, he even bought a racehorse. (Actually, he bought three if you count the two he got long after he and my mom divorced.) The lifestyle made him, at times, a well-meaning but absentee parent who struggled to balance his love of family with the allure of the track. Now and then, he let me join. Even if I could never understand his passion for the races, hanging out with my dad and drinking Coca-Colas all afternoon was its own reward. My biggest thrill was watching the confetti come raining down on the throngs after a race. I was devastated to learn those were gamblers’ losing tickets.

Jockey Jimmy Winkfield, the last African American to win the Kentucky Derby. Time Life Pictures.

My mom passed away more than a decade ago, and I’ve reached middle age, built my own family of a wife and four children. And Dad, now pushing 80, hasn’t placed a bet in years. In other words, whatever Dad’s life at the track was is a thing of the past. It’s probably why, whenever I visited him at his home in Michigan over the past few years, I felt the urge, the freedom, to talk about his days at the track: how he picked horses, his biggest wins, biggest losses. Did the Thoroughbred he named Kimron, after me and my sister, ever win a race? I was suddenly hungry for that history, and my old man, surprisingly, was transparent in telling it. Those exchanges are what led me to Kentucky’s horse country, a kind of holy grail of Thoroughbred racing, home to the iconic Churchill Downs racetrack and the Kentucky Derby.

Like Shirley Mae, maybe I was looking for an antidote to the tragic stories associated with black men. Maybe knowing the history of black horsemen could help me sort other truths and lies entangling the black male narrative in America. If black Derby heroism had been lost in the scrap heap of Jim Crow lies, wasn’t it possible that my own idealism — and at times self-righteousness — around family values and male virtue prevented me from recognizing my own father’s contribution to a rich African American legacy? Looking at my dad’s first love head-on wasn’t easy. One night before I left for Kentucky, I asked him why he’d loved the track. “Horses are such beautiful creatures,” he said wistfully. “I just wanted to be around them.” I almost wished he was talking about me.

I headed out of Louisville onto Interstate 64, beneath brilliant sunny skies through the heart of horse country, across the acres of rolling horse farms, small towns, and bourbon distilleries, on my way to Lexington, home of the International Museum of the Horse. During the drive, on a dirt road cutting across a farm in the distance, I spotted what looked to be a man, youngish, sporting a cowboy hat, galloping on a horse. The sight was mesmerizing, the fusion of man and beast powering forward in the fluid rhythmic strides. There was a kind of grace and freedom in their motion, a dance with nature. “Horses lend us the wings we lack,” I’d heard somewhere. I watched until the horse and human disappeared, ascending on the horizon in a flurry of dust.

The museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, is housed inside the sprawling 1,200-acre Kentucky Horse Park and includes a working horse farm and theme park, all of which aim to celebrate “man’s relationship with the horse” — a partnership that, according to the park officials, dates back millennia.

The IMH, as it is known, is a horse enthusiast’s nirvana, full of priceless artifacts, equine art, and interactive educational displays detailing the life and times of dozens of different breeds. But I had come to the museum with one thing in mind: to check out the exhibit on African American jockeys, which had been recommended to me as the best tourist site on the topic. My guide was Amy Beisel, the museum’s manager, who, along with five other researchers, spent the past few years building the exhibit. At the entrance, I sensed I was in the right place: Before me was a labyrinth of illustrations, artifacts, and text telling the story of how former slaves ascended to the heights of America’s first national sport, only to be systematically excluded as the purses and popularity grew.

Writer Ron Stodghill smiles at the camera during a family photo shoot, early ’70s. Getty images, Keeneland Library Cook Collection, courtesy of Ron Stodghill.

Starting in the late 1700s, slavery flourished in Kentucky, with nearly a quarter of the state’s population enslaved by 1830. According to the museum’s historians, some 28 percent of white families in the state owned slaves by 1850. With horse racing swelling in popularity, it was natural that African Americans, their lives viewed as disposable by white Thoroughbred owners and fans, would be the first to train horses and saddle up during these dangerous contests. That their labor included maintaining the horses and stables was a bonus, as slaves proved a calming presence for jittery horses during these crowded, boisterous affairs. “Horse owners needed lightweight jockeys, so they chose boys,” Beisel said as we strolled through the exhibit, its fonts and frames adorned in regal purple and gold hues. “Only the owner made money off the horses. The enslaved boy was considered a formality.”

Ultimately, though, the skills proved fortuitous: In 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the executive order to emancipate an estimated 3 million slaves, a select group of so-called horsemen were able to leverage their expertise to start careers in Thoroughbred racing. The exhibit is unflinching in its depiction of the era, both its heroism and exploitation: Bold passages such as “In Kentucky and beyond, the horse industry relied on the mental acuity and physical labor of enslaved blacks” and “For over 200 years, racing stock was generally cared for, ridden, and trained by enslaved people” punctuate the exhibit, along with reproductions of garb and equipment.

Beisel says the research was at times painful for the four staffers who worked on the project, all of them white and in their 30s or 40s. “Our staff had to sometimes step away and just take a break,” she said. “We have community members who are descendants of some of these people. When you have somebody who you have a relationship with, people who are your friends, and they tell you these stories, it really can get you.”

Jockey Isaac Burns Murphy, riding Salvator, about to win a race at Sheepshead Bay. Keeneland Library Hemment Collection.

White owners and black workers struggled to reconcile often competing visions of how Thoroughbred racing would shape their world. If owners viewed racing as a stage to put their wealth and influence on display, black jockeys, trainers, and groomsmen saw it as an opportunity to become their own bosses, to break away from subservience to whites. Indeed, during slavery, black horsemen had enjoyed a rare autonomy and, compared with other blacks, social respectability that hid tensions underneath, according to historian Katherine C. Mooney in Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack. But their newfound freedom, coupled with proud displays of material wealth by black jockeys, worked to inflame anti-black sentiment and ultimately cripple their progress in the sport. “Black horsemen’s success could not be safely channeled into the support of white supremacy,” Mooney writes. By the late 1800s, as Thoroughbred racing became more a lucrative sport with a growing fan base and larger betting pools, black jockeys were gradually — via racetrack policy or personal sabotage — pushed out of competition.

Maybe it was the hangover after a night of locally distilled Woodford Reserve bourbon that had me feeling wavy that afternoon. Maybe it was simply fatigue from hours of driving western Kentucky’s winding roads. But there I was, rather miraculously, standing on racing history’s sacred ground in Lexington, home of the Kentucky Association, also known as the Kentucky Racing Association, which was founded in 1826 to promote Thoroughbred racing in the state and where the late, great jockey Isaac Burns Murphy once lived (in a house so grand the New York Times published a front-page story about the purchase). Facing me was Ron Mack, a burly former University of Kentucky linebacker and founder of the nonprofit Legacy Equine Academy, recounting the arc of Murphy’s spectacular career. He told me how the Legacy hosts a swank ball each year during Derby week that pays for Mack to go into public schools and teach black kids about Murphy and other great African American horsemen, and how, even more important, Legacy helps connect these kids to jobs in Kentucky’s equine industry, because after all, black folks have earned a rightful place in this industry.

“Up here was the old East End projects,” he said, pointing toward the hill behind him where he grew up. “As kids, when we went outside to play ball, we didn’t know that we were on the infield of the old Kentucky Association, that we were living on historical grounds.”

Famed horse Man o’ War with his groom. Keeneland Library Cook Collection.

Standing there in the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden, in the shadow of a 16-foot, 4,000-pound sculpture dedicated to the early Derby’s three-time winner, Mack told me the story — at turns inspiring and tragic — of Isaac Burns Murphy. Born in 1861 near Frankfort, Kentucky, he relocated as a kid with his mother to Lexington to live with her father, Green Murphy. After she found work as a laundress, young Isaac frequently tagged along with her. One of her jobs was doing laundry for a racing stable owner, and as she toiled, Isaac kept busy cleaning stables and exercising the horses. A black trainer at the stable, Eli Jordon, took a liking to young Isaac and let him assist in breaking the yearlings, or training a horse to allow a human on its back. Isaac’s talent was so evident that in 1875, when he was 14, Jordon began enlisting him in races. Murphy would rise to become arguably the greatest jockey in American Thoroughbred horse racing history, winning the Kentucky Derby three times: on Buchanan in 1884, Riley in 1890, and Kingman in 1891. In all, Murphy mounted in the Derby 11 times, and he was the first jockey to win Derby crowns successively.

Still, envy among white jockeys over Murphy’s financial success caused his collapse as they conspired to exclude him and other African American jockeys from the sport. In the 1880s, Murphy received tens of thousands of dollars for his work, and, writes Pellom McDaniels in The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy, “he epitomized the kind of success black men were capable of in post–Civil War America.” Indeed, once praised by whites as a model of professionalism, Murphy in 1890 was suspended for drinking in the saddle. The controversy over the decision’s veracity remains the stuff of sports legend, with some racing historians, including McDaniels, theorizing that Murphy was poisoned.

I was around 6 or 7 years old when Dad came home and made a big announcement: He said he had bought me and my sister a horse. Kim and I were ecstatic; Mom was not. I knew this because almost instantly she began chewing at her bottom lip, her signature tic when suppressing anger. I remember her mumbling a few salty phrases about money and bills, but mostly she was quiet as we piled into the car that afternoon and drove several miles out into the country, Kim and I giddy in the backseat, eager to ride our new pony. As Dad cheerfully sped along the narrow gravel roads, Mom sat beside him in stony silence, the killjoy to his great unveil. It was the late 1960s, and Westerns were a popular television genre, and as we pulled up to the farm I was already imagining myself galloping valiantly across the field, yelling “Giddyup” just like Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza. But our gift that day, we would glumly learn, was no pony at all, but rather a massive chestnut Thoroughbred with big lazy brown eyes. “This is Jack Ace,” Dad said, patting the muscular beast. “He’s a racehorse.” Kim and I were crestfallen.

Years later, Dad told me how my mom softened once he took her to the exclusive Battle Creek Hunt Club where Jack Ace trained, how she enjoyed being pampered in the roped-off owners’ section. “Yeah, your mother wasn’t happy at all until the people in tuxedos started bringing her champagne,” he said, chuckling. “Her attitude changed — at least that day.”

Isaac Burns Murphy, third from right, at a rather formal clambake in 1890. Keenland Library Collection.

Mom and Dad met in the late 1950s as students at Eastern Michigan University, and, as she told it, she was smitten with her handsome, clever schoolmate. He was always coy about his roots: Dad grew up on dirt-poor Lumpkin Street, a run-down row of clapboard houses on the northeast side of Detroit. Conversely, my mother grew up steeped in the striver values of Detroit’s black middle class, the daughter of an elementary school principal and a factory worker. Dad was in high school when my Uncle Billy, his older brother, first took him to the racetrack. He loved the energy, the pageantry, and the high stakes of the sport, but he was too focused on his studies, on charting a path out of the ghetto, to think much about horses back then.

Mom said he was the smartest guy she’d ever dated. They took long walks on campus and studied together for hours. “I tell you, your father has a photographic memory,” she’d say. “He could read a whole page once and repeat it damn near verbatim.” He wrote and recited poetry to her. He was small in physical stature, but his talk and dreams were grandiose.

Upon graduating from Eastern Michigan with a degree in biology, he married my mom. Kim was born first, then me three years later. In those early years, he worked as a high school teacher and counselor while continuing his education; he earned two master’s degrees and then a doctorate in education. In the late ’70s, he and my mom divorced. He moved from Detroit to St. Louis, ultimately rising to become superintendent of a suburban school district outside the city. As a well-paid executive and bachelor, he was free to indulge his passion for Thoroughbred racing — and he did so with gusto.

Through the years, I have come to believe that being my dad’s son is how an amputee must feel. The nub, over time, becomes its own badge of honor, a kind of beautiful mutation of loss and resilience. Childhood memories of him grabbing the baseball mitts and playing catch with me for hours in the backyard meld with him vanishing around sundown and not reappearing until the following day. Prolonged absences during my teenage years swirl into him tossing me the keys to his Mercedes for evening cruises around town. Visits to his house during college breaks and him being MIA fuse with him calling in favors to administrators the semester I nearly flunked out. I spent years trying to reconcile the dad who left me behind with the dad who put me first.

Churchill Downs was empty. I stood in its famous plaza, trying to imagine it on Derby day, men spiffy in their Sunday best, ladies gussied up in big hats, mint juleps and raucous laughter, trainers patting down Thoroughbreds shimmying in the paddock.

Our Churchill Downs guide that afternoon didn’t tell that story, but he was good-humored and sufficiently knowledgeable, even if I had heard enough, seen enough horse history by then to drift into my own thoughts as he barreled through the racetrack’s history, of Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. bringing back the Derby idea after a trip to England.

Dad told me he once dreamed of going to the Downs. Like many of us in this life, some of his best plans were derailed. Still, the aspiration reminded me of something Shirley Mae had said that night in the doorway of her kitchen, about history not only rewarding those who live up to their individual promise but also those rogue souls, the uncelebrated, whose passions and follies and digressions blaze new trails for others to follow or simply admire.

A few days after I left Kentucky, I called my dad to tell him about my trip. I could sense his surprise in my newfound vocabulary, in my casual sprinkling of terms like “sire” and “foal” and “gelding,” in my tales from horse country. And then, as I recounted some of the extraordinary history I had learned about black jockeys like Isaac Burns Murphy, Jimmy Winkfield, and Willie Simms, he asked a small favor. He wanted me to get on my computer and go to a website called Equibase, and search for a horse named Nixmix, a Thoroughbred that ran from 2005 through 2008. It was an odd request, but I grabbed my laptop and did as told. That’s when I saw it: Nixmix, foaled 2002, owner: Ronald Stodghill.

Iron Liege, winner of the 1957 Kentucky Derby. Photo by George Silk, The Life Picture Collection, Getty Images.

Seeing his name, my name, tickled me. “Yeah, here you are,” I said. “It’s right here!”

“My name is in there?”

“Yeah, Daddy, it’s right here!” I said. “It shows the jockey, breeder, trainer, and the owner. It says Nixmix ran 39 times, won twice, and placed second and third eight times each, for career earnings of $31,963.”

He paused a moment, as though assessing for the first time a life record memorialized in cyberspace. I could almost see his self- satisfied grin. “Well, isn’t that something,” he said.

“It really is, Daddy,” I said. I stared at the page, feeling a strange sense of pride in my father’s documented place, albeit small, in horse racing history. I slid the cursor back up into the search engine and clicked.

“Let’s see,” I said, “whether I can find something on here about your other horse — Jack Ace?” A feeling good and light came over me, almost like confetti.

About the author: Ron Stodghill, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, writes frequently about African American history and culture. He is the author of Where Everybody Looks Likes Me: At the Crossroads of America’s Black Colleges and Culture, and Redbone: Money, Malice and Murder in Atlanta.