Lawmakers Honor Renowned Jockey Winkfield

By James R. Carroll
Updated: May 8, 2005

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Just in time for Kentucky Derby weekend, the House moved with thoroughbred speed Thursday to honor one of the most amazing jockeys in the history of the sport, Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield. House Resolution 231, sponsored by Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-1st District, and Bobby Rush, D-Ill., “celebrates the remarkable life and accomplishments of one of the truly great American athletes,” the last African-American jockey to win the Derby.

Winkfield took back-to-back Derby victories, in 1901 riding His Eminence, and in 1902 on Alan-a-Dale.

But his is a fascinating story worthy of a book — and Ed Hotaling recently wrote it: “Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield.”

The future jockey was born in 1882 in Chilesburg, Ky., the youngest of 17 children.

He grew up at a time when black jockeys were commonplace in horse racing — and dominant. He competed in his first race at 16, and it was just six years later when he won the 1901 Derby — one of only four jockeys to post back-to-back wins.

Eventually, racism had an impact on horse racing, pushing out black jockeys.

Winkfield moved to Russia, then still under czarist rule, and kept riding: he won the Russian national riding title three times, twice took the Moscow Derby, three times triumphed in the Russian Derby, posted two wins in the Poland Derby, won Germany’s Grand Prix de Baden and France’s Grand Prix de la Republique, according to the resolution.

With the Russian Revolution in 1917, Winkfield embarked on a harrowing escape, leading 200 people and an equal number of horses to Poland. He later moved to France, retiring in 1930 with a record of 2,600 wins in 10 nations.

Courage abroad and home

Winkfield could not escape the great cataclysms of the 20th century. In 1940, the Nazis invaded France and eventually took over his horse farm.

Hotaling, in an interview Friday on CNN, said the retired jockey “went after a group of Nazis one day with a pitchfork (because they) were mistreating his horses.”

Winkfield was forced once again to flee, this time back to the United States. But after World War II he returned to France with his thoroughbreds.

In 1961, Winkfield was invited to a pre-Kentucky Derby party at The Brown hotel in Louisville.

“And a lot of people in Kentucky, apparently, for some reason, were surprised that after 60 years, he was still black,” Hotaling told CNN. “And they wouldn’t let him in the front door.”

He eventually did get in, and attended the Derby the following day.

“What carried him through all of his battles with the Bolsheviks and the Nazis and early racists was his self-esteem,” Hotaling said. “Nobody could get to him. He knew who he was.”

Winkfield died in France in 1974 at age 94. In 2003, he was admitted to the National Racing Hall of Fame.