The former Havre de Grace Racetrack, known as "The Graw," was the site of many spirited and historic horse races in its relatively short existence from 1912 to 1950.
This October, the Hays-Heighe House at Harford Community College will honor African-Americans' contributions to some of those races and to horse racing as a whole in "Beauty in Sport: Celebration of Black Jockeys in Harford County, Maryland and Beyond." Organizers are asking for help in identifying African-Americans who rode at local tracks or whose families have ties to the county, then and now.
The idea for the exhibition came from a Gean Smith painting purchased last year with money donated to the house by former HCC president Jim LaCalle and his wife, Lynne. The portrait shows the horse Yorkville Belle and the renown African-American jockey Issac Murphy, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner and a member of the first group of jockeys to be inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1955.
In February, The Aegis wrote about the painting, which drew the attention of African-American sports historian Pellom McDaniels, who was putting together a biography of Murphy and wanted to use a print of the painting. After learning the book was to be released Oct. 6, the idea came to the folks at the Hays-Heighe House to recognize African-American jockeys.
Renovated two years ago, the Hays-Heighe House was the manor house for the late Robert and Anne Heighe's Prospect Hill Farm, a top thoroughbred breeding and racing establishment in the first half of the 20th century. The farm became the HCC campus in the late 1960s. Last fall, the college and Hays-Heighe House hosted their first exhibition, "Beauty in Sport: Celebrating Horse Racing in Harford County."
Part of the upcoming exhibit at the Hays-Heighe House will be a traveling exhibition curated by McDaniels featuring his book "The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Murphy." McDaniels is also the faculty curator of the African American collections in the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library at Emory University in Atlanta and will be providing items from the collections for the exhibition.
A local story
"When we have a traveling exhibition, we like to augment it with a compelling local story, which is why we're looking at black jockeys in Harford County," Iris Barnes, coordinator and curator of the Hays-Heighe House, said.
"We have identified black jockeys who raced at The Graw, but we're trying to identify any black jockeys who are from Harford County who raced at The Graw," Barnes added.
The house is also looking to identify black trainers and grooms at The Graw and from Harford County, as they also played a vital in horse racing.
"The trainer and groom are not spoken about, but you cannot forget about who took care of [a horse]," Barnes said.
Among the best known African-American grooms in the county was Joshua Eugene Fischer Jr., who was known to have worked with Saggy at Country Life Farm in Bel Air. Saggy is most famous for having beaten future Triple Crown winner Citation on April 12, 1948 at The Graw. Saggy was the sire of 1961 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Carry Back, who was conceived at Country Life.
"There was a wonderful black groom named Gene Fisher, who was great with horses and kids," recalled Mike Pons, who owns Country Life Farm in partnership with his brother, Josh.
According to his obituary published in The Aegis, Mr. Fisher, who died in 2000 at the age of 75, loved horses and worked around them for 40 years, including 17 at Country Life where Saggy lived and stood at stud following his racing career. He and his wife, Hester, lived on Williams Street in Bel Air and were the parents of 10 children. It was there, according to Pons, that Mr. Fisher, a lifelong Harford County resident, as was his wife, fixed bicycles and lawn mowers and was well known around the town.
Interest in African-Americans and their contributions to horse racing was rekindled during this year's Triple Crown series in which one of the early Kentucky Derby favorites, Goldencents, was ridden by Kevin Krigger, a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands who was trying to become the first African-American jockey to win the Derby in more than 100 years. Goldencents finished 17th in the Derby and came back to run fifth in the Preakness under Krigger, who spent the week before the latter at Pimlico prepping Goldencents and other horses in trainer Doug O'Neill's stables.
History and controversy
Organizers of the Hays-Heighe House exhibit are planning to fill all six rooms in the house, Barnes said. One exhibit will examine the controversy and evolution of black jockey statues, commonly called "lawn jockeys," and how they came to be perceived as racist caricatures.
Regarding horse racing, Barnes said that in addition to the names of specific jockeys, grooms and trainers from Harford County, she and intern and research assistant Madison Griffitts "are also looking for objects, as well as information and any artifacts people may have."
Thus far their research from newspapers and websites has yielded a handful of names, among them Joe Booker, James Lee, Tony Allen, Robert Simpson and Alfred Young over the period from the teens into the early 1930s, with many articles noting prominently that these riders were, in the parlance of the day, "colored."
As with thoroughbred racing, which dates to colonial times in the country, the history of black jockeys dates to slavery, Barnes said. In the 1800s, black jockeys were common, with at least four taking part in the very first Kentucky Derby in 1875. As Jim Crow laws were strengthened in the first half of the 20th century, however, black jockeys were pushed out, with many going to Europe and finding fame and wealth there.
The last African-American jockey to win the Derby was Jimmy Winkfeld aboard Alan-a-Dale in 1902. And, though black jockeys did compete at Havre de Grace, their numbers in contemporary racing have never come back to where they were 80 to 100 years ago. Meanwhile, the trade today is dominated by Latin American and white riders, with African-American riders forming a very small minority.
"They talk about 42 and Jackie Robinson integrating sports, but really it was these [African-American] jockeys who led the pack," Barnes said. "Their contributions are often overlooked."
Barnes can be contacted at 443-412-2495 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The schedule of events for the upcoming exhibition:
• Oct. 7, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m., Lunch & Learn at Hays-Heighe House: Exhibit opening lunch, reception with a presentation by Stuart Hudgins;
• Oct. 7, 6:30 to 8 p.m.: Exhibit opening evening reception;
• Oct. 24, 6:30 to 8 p.m: Exhibit curator reception and book signing and presentation of the Robert & Anne Heighe Award for Excellence in Equestrian Journalism. Meet Isaac Murphy's biographer, Pellom McDaniels, former NFL football player turned scholar of African American sports history. Sip some sherry, view the exhibit and meet and talk with McDaniels.
• Oct: 25, 12:30 to 2 p.m. (Chesapeake Center): Luncheon and speaker Pellom McDaniels, author of "The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy" and curator of the traveling exhibit of the same name. Book signing to follow. Ticket are required and are available at tickets.harford.edu or call 443-412-2211.
Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this article.