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Forgotten black jockeys take their place in history


The seeds were sown 11 years ago when Ed Hotaling, a TV journalist from Washington, conducted the infamous interview with Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder at Duke Ziebert's deli on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Snyder said, among other things, that blacks were taking over sports in America. That germinated in Hotaling's mind as he later researched and wrote his first book, "They're Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga."

"I kept coming across black jockeys all over the place," Hotaling said. "I was a little startled since there are almost none today. And this had an edge to it. It was unfair, to put it mildly, that African-Americans had been left out of the history of the sport."

That led to Hotaling's second book, "The Great Black Jockeys: The Lives and Times of the Men Who Dominated America's First National Sport," published recently by Prima Publishing.

"What I found was that African-Americans weren't taking over sports; they didn't sort of regularly break in at various stages down to Jackie Robinson," Hotaling said. "African-Americans were there at the beginning. I found that great black jockeys began in colonial days -- as slaves. They were America's first professional athletes."

A five-time Emmy Award-winning producer and writer at WRC-TV in Washington, Hotaling discovered that black jockeys -- two centuries before Robinson "integrated" professional sports -- rode and competed alongside a smaller number of their white counterparts in the hugely popular sport of horse racing.

Only two black jockeys have been elected to racing's hall of fame -- Isaac Murphy, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1884, 1890 and 1891 and whose 44-percent win rate has never been equaled, and Willie Simms, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1896 and 1898, the Preakness in 1898 and the Belmont in 1893 and 1894.

But Hotaling discovered several other deserving black jockeys -- who excelled before the Civil War all the way back to the early 1600s. Their long-forgotten names are Austin Curtis, Abe Hawkins and Charles Stewart, and Cato, Jesse and Simon (records show only their first names).

"What kept me going was that they turned out to be tremendous role models," Hoteling said. "They were often of courage and accomplishment and almost always of great faith."

Hoteling has participated in a panel discussion of African-Americans in thoroughbred racing at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, Ky., and he will conduct a book signing May 1 at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day. He has also presented his showing of black-jockey slides at a public school in Washington.

"I'd like to get into Baltimore because when I go to Laurel and Pimlico I just see so many black fans," Hotaling said. "I'd especially like to reach young people."

Hotaling hopes to sign books at Pimlico around Preakness time. And he hopes his research will lead to some of the early black jockeys' gaining entry into the hall of fame at Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

"The racing establishment seems to have forgotten 200 years of its own history," Hotaling said. "What it's really forgotten is that horse racing was America's first national pastime, and African-Americans were a major part of it."


The Pennsylvania Senate last week killed a bill that would have authorized a referendum on expanded gambling. It would have asked voters whether they approved of riverboat gambling, video-lottery machines in bars and slot machines at racetracks. A bill authorizing slots at Pennsylvania tracks is expected to be introduced.

The bitter dispute between management and horsemen at Penn National Race Course is entering its fourth week. The two sides remain far apart in negotiations over how much of the betting dollar should go to purses. The track hasn't raced since mid February, and its telephone-wagering network and six off-track betting parlors are also shut down.

Despite third-place finishes in his last two races, Silver Charm will attempt to become the first repeat winner of the Dubai World Cup on March 28 in the United Arab Emirates. Two other horses from the United States are expected to compete: Malek and Victory Gallop. They'll be joined by Running Stag from England and four horses from the Dubai-based Godolphin Racing, including Epsom Derby winner High-Rise.

All the controversy and uncertainty aside, one worthwhile development has occurred this year in Virginia. The General Assembly passed, and the governor is expected to sign, a bill that gives the racing commission discretion in approving racing licenses. Last year, the commission was forced to deny jockey Pat Day a license because of a 25-year-old drug conviction.

NOTE: Due to a large response to my request for comments on Maryland racing, readers' opinions will not be published until later this month. Watch this space for the date.

Pub Date: 3/14/99

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