By Dick Jerardi
Philadelphia Daily News (MCT)
---- — 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.
That day will be Saturday when Krigger becomes just the second black jockey since 1921 to ride in the Derby. (Marlon St. Julien finished seventh on a hopeless longshot in 2000.) And he won’t be riding just any horse. Krigger will ride Goldencents, the Santa Anita Derby winner, a horse with a real chance. (Fellow St. Croix native Victor Lebron will ride longshot Frac Daddy.)
In St. Croix, horses sometimes wandered into Krigger’s back yard.
“I just kind of figured if a horse is in my yard, I have the right to be able to go for a ride,” Krigger said.
So he did.
Tall (5-6) for a rider, Krigger arrived on the mainland in 2001, just hoping for a chance. He rode in the minor leagues, first at Thistledown in Ohio, then the Northern California circuit, a stop at Calder in Miami and then Emerald Downs in Seattle.
“I was fulfilling a dream,” Krigger said. “I wanted to become a champion.”
He went back to Golden Gate Fields, across the bay from San Francisco and established himself as one of the track’s best. Last year, he went to Southern California where, if you can get on the right horse, you can get to the Derby.
“I was fortunate enough when I started to ride in Southern California, I was given a present from a friend and it was the ‘History of Black Jockeys’ and I took the time out to actually read the book and got a chance to educate myself about the black jockeys that rode,” Krigger said in his lovely Caribbean accent.
Krigger grew up on an island that is 28 miles long and seven miles wide with almost no horse racing culture. He has now ridden 900 winners at tracks all over America. There are exactly 1 ¼ miles between him and a life-altering experience.
Goldencents is surely good enough to take him there. The colt has raced six times with four wins, a second, and earnings of $1.25 million. Krigger has ridden the colt in every start.
“He worked Goldencents maybe six weeks or so before his debut, and he got off him, and in his best U.S. Virgin Island accent just said, ‘Wow, man, this horse can really run,’” said the colt’s trainer, Doug O’Neill.
O’Neill never wavered on Krigger even after the colt got in a messy speed duel in the March 9 San Felipe Stakes and finished fourth.
“He’s just got ice running through his veins, and he’s got that let’s-bring-it-on (attitude) instead of (being) in awe of the whole thing, even though it is a pretty amazing historical fact that it’s been a long time since an African-American has won the race,” O’Neill said. “So I think it’s time to make it, to have it happen again and I’m hoping May 4 that Kevin and I are both part of a great history of this great race.”
It was just a year ago that O’Neill stuck with unknown jockey Mario Gutierrez on Santa Anita Derby winner I’ll Have Another. They won the 2012 Derby together.
“The irony is that the trainer (in 1902) was an Irish guy named Thomas McDowell,” O’Neill said. “So Kevin’s going to be playing Winkfield and I’m going to be playing McDowell.”
And if they do win it, the jockey might even be a bigger story than the five percent owner of Goldencents, a man who caused Krigger to watch his first college basketball game on April 8.
That would be the night Louisville beat Michigan for the national championship. Krigger said he never wavered in his belief that Rick Pitino’s Louisville team would win. Now, Krigger is coming to Pitino’s city to ride for that man, to go after the Derby.
“It’s like everybody is out of their seat right now cheering me on,” Krigger said.
Krigger knows why black riders were denied a chance even after they had proven themselves. He knows why he is getting a chance. He has proven himself and the world has changed, even if the pace has often seemed glacial.
“Not too many African-Americans that I know are actually interested in riding horses,” Krigger said. “We have probably a handful or two handfuls.”
If it was just about talent, black jockeys almost certainly would have kept winning the Derby through the years. It was, however, about opportunity and there was none. Now, there is and Krigger ran right through the door when Goldencents ran away from the favorite on April 6 at Santa Anita.
“I was looking at one of the pictures taken from the inside and I don’t know who’s smiling more, me or the horse,” Krigger said.
And the jockey is certain that neither he, nor his Derby horse, is through winning.
“I knew I could make it on this stage,” Krigger said. “I didn’t know anybody who was any better on a horse than I was.”
Now, Kevin Krigger is on a horse that is fast enough to demonstrate that Krigger is every bit as talented as he always believed. And he earned the chance on his ability.