By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun
9:58 PM EDT, May 15, 2013
The day after riding in the Kentucky Derby, Kevin Krigger packed his family and gear and headed for Pimlico Race Course — by way of Cincinnati. A woman there had captured his heart. She was Liliane Casey, 88, whose father, Jimmy Winkfield, was the last black jockey to win the Derby, or any Triple Crown race, in 1902.
"I had to meet her," said Krigger, 29, who chatted with Casey in the living room of her apartment for nearly 2 1/2 hours. "We had a great time. She educated me as to what her father had gone through in racing."
Before Krigger departed, Casey said, photos were taken and phone numbers exchanged. Hugs, too.
"He wanted me to come to Baltimore, to be his guest at the Preakness," she said.
Saturday, aboard Goldencents, Krigger will try to become the first African-American to win the Preakness in 115 years. It's a milestone that he has long embraced, he said:
"You have to appreciate your history, or else your present doesn't mean much."
Truth be told, there's not a lot to tell. To date, just six black jockeys have saddled up for the Preakness, and two have won it — the fewest in any of the Triple Crown races. Both those men triumphed in the 19th century, during Reconstruction, when the sport was young, agrarian and accepting of former slaves and their kin who rode the animals they'd once cared for. Around 1900, legal segregation kicked in, and black jockeys largely vanished from the American racing scene.
Even now, their numbers are few. About 50 of the nearly 1,000 jockeys in the U.S. are black, according to the Jockeys' Guild.
Willie Simms rode Sly Fox to victory in 1898, when the Preakness was run at Gravesend Race Track in Brooklyn, N.Y. Nine years earlier, the 17th Preakness was won by George (Spider) Anderson, aboard Buddhist, in a two-horse race at Pimlico.
Simms' triumph on Sly Fox, a Maryland-born horse, coupled with earlier wins in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, earned the Georgia native honors as the only black jockey to win all three legs of the Triple Crown. A member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, Simms rode for 14 years and won 1,125 races — a remarkable one-fourth of his career starts.
In retirement, Simms turned to betting on races and fell on hard times. In 1907, he was ejected from Gravesend upon entering the track with a counterfeit $3 admission ticket. He died 20 years later at age 47 in Asbury Park, N.J.
Less is known of Anderson. Born in Baltimore, he was 18 when he rode Buddhist to a 10-length victory in the 1889 Preakness. It was a memorable afternoon for Anderson, who rode two winners and finished second and third in two other races on the day's five-race card.
Anderson rode for two more years and then disappeared, save for a New York Times' story in 1892 reporting that he had been acquitted of a shooting murder in Camden, N.J., having pleaded self-defense.
A decade later, African-Americans jockeys had all but disappeared. Emboldened by Jim Crow laws, whites conspired to purge them from racing. No secret, that.
"The Negro jockey is down and out, not because he could no longer ride, but because of a quietly formed combination to shut him out," the Times wrote in 1900.
In Maryland, a few black riders lingered, and prejudices lurked. In 1921, during a race at Laurel Park, The Sun reported, a white jockey deliberately drove a black one, Leo Coney, into the rail. Coney's horse fell, upending its rider, who "bounded from the ground like a rubber ball ... and then fell to the infield."
Coney suffered a fractured skull. The other rider, Frankie Coltiletti, was suspended for the remainder of Laurel's meeting.
At least one black jockey chose to fight back. In 1932, at Hagerstown's half-mile track, Charles (Old Man) Jackson, 45, slugged a white rider whom he said had threatened his life during a race and then called him "vile names" afterward.
Jackson, The Sun wrote, "attacked Pat Remillard after the second race, knocking him out, blacking his left eye and inflicting a slight cut over and under it."
Both riders were suspended, and later reinstated, by the Maryland Racing Commission. The media, particularly the Hagerstown Daily Mail, sided with the black jockey:
"Jackson had every right to plaster Remillard and, had he not taken the matter into his own hands, his life would have been tough sliding during the remainder of the local session, and in many more meetings to come."
Krigger has heard stories. Had he lived a century ago, he said, he would have been determined to ride.
"If I'd been around then, and had the same exposure to horses that I did as a kid, I don't think even racism would have stopped me," he said. "I was going to be a jockey, one way or the other."
'Riding was a part of life'
Born and raised in the Virgin Islands, Krigger's youth was, in a way, akin to that of the black jockeys of yore. In his homeland, he said, horses were a means of transport, income and entertainment for kids like himself. Krigger took to riding even before he was big enough to saddle up correctly.
"I'd lead the horse to the back yard, where my great-grandfather had these rusty abandoned cars, which were so old they had bushes growing in them. Then I'd climb onto the roof and use it as a stool to jump onto the horse," he said.
"I gave trail rides to tourists through the woods near our house. We had match races, as kids, on the beach. Once I won a bag of feed. Another time, I won $50.
"It was like second nature for me to be on a horse. Riding was a part of life. I'm pretty sure that, growing up here (in America), a black kid looks at racing and says, 'That's a white person's sport.' Every race and culture looks up to people taking part in what they want to be. But I grew up in a diverse community; I never looked at the world as being black or white, just people."
"I chose riding over everything, including my education," Krigger said. "I'd skip school to go riding. Once, when I was 14, I rode a horse into the school. It sounds kind of crazy, but my cousin and I found a hole in the fence and just did it. They called the cops, but we took off through the bushes on our horses and they couldn't catch us."
At 17, Krigger came to the states to ply his trade. Now based in Southern California, he has won 937 races with earnings of nearly $18 million while facing none of the problems that plagued his black predecessors.
"The greatest thing is that I've never run into jockeys who expressed racism toward me," he said.
Neither does he receive mail from youngsters who might see him as a role model, a brass ring for their futures.
"That has never happened before," he said. "And I didn't really think it would change, coming into the Triple Crown."
A win could bring change
A victory Saturday could change that, black horsemen say. The last African American to ride in the Preakness — and the only one in the 20th century — was Wayne Barnett, who finished eighth aboard Sparrowvon in 1985. Not coincidentally, Sparrowvon's trainer, Hank Allen, was black.
"No doubt about it. I'm sure a win (by Krigger) would give some young kids the desire to want to do it," said Charlie Forrest, 46, a black trainer based in Laurel and a former jockey who rode in Maryland for 23 years. "We had one black jockey, Malcolm Franklin, but he left last year for Indiana Downs, where he's now the leading rider.
"There just aren't many black people on the tracks anymore, even as grooms or hot walkers," Forrest said. "Earlier this year, I got a call from a couple of guys who said they wanted to be jockeys. They asked how to get started. I told them I'd help, but I never heard from them again."
As for Krigger, the St. Croix native says he can cope with the weight of being the Great Black Hope of horse racing. And he's not dismayed by Goldencents' 17th place finish in the Derby, an outcome for which the colt's brain trust declined to blame the jockey. Instead, trainer Doug O'Neill brought horse and rider straight to Pimlico to acclimate them to the track.
"He (Krigger) thinks highly of the horse and we think just as highly of Kevin," assistant trainer Jack Sisterson said. "To have him come out here and work with (Goldencents), that shows a level of commitment that is unusual. But Kevin's not about the usual. He's pushed to go further at every step of his career, and he knows what he means to people."
And what's at stake on Saturday.
"It's what history has made it to be," Krigger said. "For an African-American to make it to where I am now, and be publicized for it, is like finding a rare jewel. I actually enjoy the fact that people are acknowledging me for something I've been trying to get done for my entire career. The fact that I'm African-American is just what it is."
Baltimore Sun reporter Chris Korman contributed to this article.
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