ABOVE THE clubhouse entrance to Pimlico Race Course, a huge wall sculpture, serving as a logo for the track, shows three mounted jockeys. But they're in silhouette, so the tens of thousands of people who walk under them every Preakness Day have no idea the middle rider was one of the many great black jockeys who once starred in America's first national pastime.
It would be nice if the sculpture could have clearly shown that black jockey, whose name was Will Walker, but who knew? The sculpture is based on a 19th-century engraving that depicted one of the most ballyhooed Baltimore sporting events of all time -- the U.S. House of Representatives adjourned for it -- but even that engraving showed the three jockeys as white.
The great black jockeys were not only ridden out of the sport about 100 years ago, but they were often sketched out, engraved out -- and eventually written out of American history.
It turns out African-Americans did not break into mainstream sports with Jackie Robinson in 1947, or even with catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker in Toledo in 1884. They didn't have to break into it. They were there from the start -- all the way from the early 1700s, more than a century before modern baseball had its modest beginnings around New York City.
The black jockeys, thousands of them, and a smaller number of white jockeys were our first pro athletes, along with the occasional boxer.
They were professionals in every sense. This was their job, they were in it full time, competing in uniform at the highest levels in a highly regulated, minutely recorded sport, for huge stakes and before giant crowds. This African-American majority -- the black jockeys, and the black trainers, too -- helped invent our wildly popular first national pastime and, because we are talking about sports-crazy America, our way of life.
Here are just a few of them:
An economy-sized Michael Jordan, the Colonial jock Austin Curtis posed a dual threat of physical and financial wizardry. One morning, he dangerously dangled his foot to throw off another jockey and won 147,000 pounds of tobacco in front of what was called the biggest crowd in America before, and for two decades after, the Revolution.
He made his employer, Willie Jones, a founder of North Carolina, the most successful stable owner in the land. Emancipated for protecting Jones against British raiders, Curtis became a top trainer, celebrated from the Roanoke to Tennessee's Cumberland Valley.
The jockey, called Simon, was the Dennis Rodman of his day. I found it impossible at first to get my mind around his incredible story, for it began with his arrival in slavery in South Carolina and soon found him performing from Charleston to Natchez on the Mississippi. He wound up in Nashville, renowned for a rapier wit that lacerated Tennessee's high and mighty, including Gen. Andrew Jackson. From 1811 through 1815, aboard the mare Haney's Maria, Simon defeated every horse and jockey Jackson could throw at him, sending Old Hickory into cyclonic rages.
One day, the 6-foot-1-inch general publicly issued an order to the 4-foot-6-inch jockey.
"Now, Simon, when my horse comes up and is about to pass you, don't spit your tobacco juice in his eyes, and in the eyes of the rider, as you sometimes do," said the future president, as quoted by a friend.
"Well, General," said Simon, dripping sarcasm, "I've rode a good deal agin your horses, but . . . none were ever near enough to catch my spit."
After he became president, Jackson had a slave jockey on his side. The last time I checked, nobody working for President Clinton knew that the White House was once a full-fledged professional sports organization, a racing stable created by Jackson. It was no small thing, either. Jackson not only brought a few of his family's thoroughbreds up from the Hermitage, his Tennessee homestead, along with slave jockeys, but he also stabled friends' steeds at "The President's House." They went after stakes money in Washington, Baltimore and Timonium. The painter Edward Troye left us images of such terrific antebellum jockeys as Ben, who rode for future Virginia Rep. John Minor Botts, and Lew, a top Kentucky jockey.
Many were born leaders. Charles Stewart traveled from Virginia to Kentucky to run a breeding operation, then managed the leading training stable in southwest Louisiana, all while trapped in slavery.
The first black athlete to be recognized repeatedly in the American national press (while boxer Tom Molineaux pursued his career in England) was the slave Cornelius.
Aboard Boston, one of the horses of the century, Cornelius campaigned from Petersburg, Va., to Baltimore to Long Island. He covered a lot of ground on the track, too. The classic race distance was four miles, with many contests comprising from two to four heats of four miles each. A five-heat race -- 20 miles -- was not unknown. Man O'War, for my money the best runner of the 20th century, won 20 of 21 races over a total distance of 20 and 5/8 miles. Under Cornelius, Boston won 18 of 19 races over a distance of 143 miles.
Two famous Abes
There were two Americans known widely during the Civil War as just "Abe." One emancipated the other.
Abe Hawkins started with Louisiana sugar planter Duncan Kenner, but when Yankee soldiers invaded Kenner's upriver digs, Kenner escaped on a thoroughbred, and Abe took off, too -- magically to reappear as a star of the North. Just after the war, as the South lay in ruins, Abe recognized a Louisiana visitor at Saratoga, N.Y. The visitor said he knew Duncan Kenner.
"Tell him," said Abe, "I have ridden a great many races here in the North and have made right smart of money. It is all in the bank, and it is his if he wants it." The emancipated slave was offering to bail out his old "owner." Kenner sent back thanks but didn't need the help.
The war wiped out the race courses in most Southern cities -- and with them the black jockeys' numerical dominance of the sport. But they continued to dominate in the border state of Kentucky. In the first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, 13 of the 15 riders were black, including the winner, Oliver Lewis. African-Americans would capture at least 15 of the first 28 Derbies. Five months after taking the third Derby, Will Walker appeared in the "Great Baltimore Race" of Oct. 24, 1877, the one portrayed in that wall sculpture that greets fans at Pimlico. While the House of Representatives adjourned for it, the Senate didn't have to, because it wasn't in session. But it was estimated that half the population of Congress rode up to Baltimore and across Druid Hill Park to Pimlico for the three-horse event.
Walker was on the favorite, Ten Broeck. As it happened, the actual race wasn't much, with Will and Ten Broeck parading in front for two miles, only to discover Parole whizzing by them in the final half-mile.
If the black jockeys frequently appeared as whites in early engravings, as Will did in this case, sometimes the opposite happened. As some white commentators worried about the black jockeys' successful invasion of the big Northern tracks, illustrations occasionally showed black riders when, in fact, the jockeys were white, thus making the black "threat" bigger than it was. A newspaper drawing of a famous dead heat at Saratoga in 1870 showed a black and a white rider, though both were white.
Isaac "Ike" Murphy was his day's highest-salaried American athlete, black or white, pocketing $15,000 to $20,000 a year by 1887.
Winner of four American Derby races and three races of the then less-important Kentucky Derby, Murphy had a sensational winning record of somewhere around 39 percent. Of all the black jockeys who rode before and after the Civil War, Murphy and Willie Simms are the only two in racing's Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Simms won the Belmont Stakes twice and Kentucky Derby twice, but he was the victor in the Preakness Stakes in 1898.
In 1893, however, he also prevailed in an Elizabeth, N.J., race for the fabled Woodlawn Vase, the most beautiful trophy in sports. It became the Preakness trophy in 1917.
Race won, charges dropped
A few years ago, I discovered that another black jockey had won the Preakness: George "Spider" Anderson in 1889.
When Spider got in a fight with a coachman at Pimlico before the Preakness and cut him badly with his whip, a judge set up court there on the track to try him for assault, but the charges were dropped after Spider came home the winner. Other terrific black jockeys of that era were Shelby "Pike" Barnes, twice national riding champion and first in the $40,900 first Futurity, the richest regularly scheduled American sporting event yet; Tony Hamilton, winner of the American Derby, the third Futurity and all the great New York handicaps; and such Kentucky Derby victors as Alonzo Clayton and James "Soup" Perkins.
James Winkfield, the last of the great black jockeys, is one of only five riders to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbies (1901 and 1902). After pulling that off, he joined an exodus abroad of top riders (most of them white) and trainers, as American racing faced financial crises and anti-gambling movements that shut down tracks all over the country.
At home, hard times were harder for African-Americans, and after another decade, as the sport struggled to get back on its feet, the black jockeys virtually disappeared from top tracks around the country, except as newly converted steeplechasers, trainers, assistant trainers, exercise riders and grooms. So, rather than returning and vying to become American national champion, Jimmy Winkfield became Russian national champ under the czar. He won major Russian, Polish and German events before settling in Paris and adding some glittering French stakes victories.
At age 79, he came home for a visit. America's turf writers decided to honor the two-time Derby laureate at a hotel banquet in Louisville.
He went with his daughter, who lives quietly today not far from the bluegrass where Jimmy Winkfield was born. She tells me that when they got to the legendary Brown Hotel, they were not allowed to enter through the front door. It was 1961.
Where did they go?
Why did our black jockeys all but vanish?
Why has a black jockey not even ridden in any Triple Crown event since Henry King placed 10th on Planet in the 1921 Derby?
Why, when I show slides of the black jockeys to schools and historical groups, are people invariably surprised at the sight of African-Americans in jockey silks?
To escape poverty and violence in the South after the Civil War, African-Americans began migrating to the Northern and Western cities, away from small horse farms where they could get a start. Money was a big factor. Black jockeys began finding it harder to get mounts for increasingly rich events in the North, and they also found themselves getting pushed into the rail a lot. Stable owners became less willing to risk their investments on them.
Finally, a lot of people still think along the lines of what Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder said (I was the reporter he said it to) -- that African-Americans are good at football and basketball because, before the Civil War, they were "bred" to be big. The corollary would be that they're too big to be jockeys. This confirms suspicions that the only African-Americans many white people see much of are on weekend television.
It also recalls an 1860s commentator, an early Jimmy "The Greek" who noted that African-Americans made great riders because they were obviously bred to be jockeys.
Solutions? Affirmative action has never been big at the track, but it might be an astute move in this ailing sport for its operators to reach out. They might broaden both their fan base and job-applicant pools by disseminating the story of the great black jockeys and trainers to schoolchildren and, for that matter, to adults.
This might prove especially effective in Maryland, where the Pimlico and Laurel race courses enjoy more African-American patronage than many other tracks, and where the Maryland Jockey Club has been looking for ways to reach out.
For the moment, around the country, the saddest thing is that the sport that once did the most for African-Americans (or rather the sport that African-Americans helped invent) now does the least.
Edward Hotaling is the author of "The Great Black Jockeys: The Lives and Times of the Men Who Dominated America's First Sport."