LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When the Kentucky Derby was first run in 1875, black jockeys were dominating the sport, as they had done since horses first started racing in fields all over America before and after the Revolution. In that first Derby, 13 of the 15 horses were ridden by African-American jockeys. Exactly 15 of the first 28 Derbies were won by black jockeys, former slaves and sons of former slaves.
Isaac Murphy was the first rider to win the Derby three times. Judging by his statistics, he may have been the greatest jockey who ever lived. He rode in 1,412 races and won 628, an incredible 44 percent, the rough equivalent of a .600 hitter in baseball.
Jimmy Winkfield won the Derby in 1901 and 1902 and finished second in 1903. He was, by every historical account, a brilliant jockey.
Post Civil War Reconstruction opened a window for black jockeys to ride at established race tracks. Jim Crow closed the window in the late 1880s. Eventually, black jockeys were intimidated and run off race tracks from New York to Kentucky and everywhere in between. Some of America’s first sporting heroes were shamefully eliminated from their sport.
Nearly a half century before Jackie Robinson, horse racing was integrated. Then, the door was shut and not reopened for decades.
By 1904, Winkfield was on his way to Russia where he became a riding legend there as well as in Germany and France. No black jockey has won the Derby since 1902. Few have even had a chance, as black riders were excluded from the sport for so long that generations of potential talent never even considered the game.
Enter Kevin Krigger, 29, from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a kid who used to grab neighbors’ horses and take off in a race of his own. He graduated to races against friends on the beach and, each May, would watch the Derby, believing that one day he would be in it.