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Paddock to Post: Preparing For The Derby
At Churchill Downs Race Track, a statue regally stands on the grounds recognizing Aristides, the inaugural winner of the Derby in 1875. Missing from that statue, however, is the rider, one Oliver Lewis, reportedly 16 years old at the time of his accomplishment, and a Black man.
Michael McBride looks at that statue and sees a condemnation of Black achievement in America. “To show the horse without the rider — because one cannot do their job without the other — means simply this: an intent to expand the vision and belief contributions by Blacks don’t have credibility; what we do that is of a positive nature doesn’t matter even when the whole world sees it; because anything we do is not worth consideration.”
McCloud, who teaches conceptual art at Tennessee State University, is the creator of a website, www.TooBlackTooFast.com, which seeks to remind the public of the greatness of those earliest Black superstars — thoroughbred racing jockeys.
Between 1875 and the turn of the twentieth century, black riders would be astride 15 of the first 28 Derby winners, with a string of 11 consecutive Derby winners piloted by Black jockeys. “Riders like Oliver Lewis, Isaac Murphy and Jimmy Winkfield were more than athletes,” contends McBride. “They were America’s icons – with the thankless but understood dilemma they were uplifting humankind, in spite of naked racism staring them in the face for most of their lives.”
In 1902, Jimmy Winkfield, aboard Alan-A-Dale, became one of a select group when he became a two-time, back-to-back, Derby winning pilot, and narrowly missed the following year.
According to historical accounts, Winkfield had to leave the country, because his defeat didn’t sit well with some sore losers who figured a Black man not delivering the goods should have his life forfeit for failing them.
Winkfield, who would eventually leave and go on to become arguably Europe’s greatest jockey, received his due by leaving the country he was born in; a pattern that would continue with Blacks of every cultural spectrum to this very day.
As Black jockeys were being phased out (more like forced out), the spectre of racism carried on under the veneer of “sportsmanship.”As more money became part of the equation, Blacks were subtracted from any sum total of acknowledgment.
The Second Wave
While the mint juleps were still continuing to be sipped as generations passed by, a second wave of Black talent eventually began to wash ashore. The Caribbean would become the epicenter for these new athletes, beginning with the great Jamaican jockey George HoSang in the 1970s.
Since then, a steady Island beat has been tapping time over the racetracks of North America. Men like Patrick Husbands, Rajiv Maragh, Kendrick Carmouche, Emile Ramsammy, Kerwin John, Christopher Griffith, Kevin Krigger, Quincy Welch, Anderson Trotman, Rickey Walcott, Jermaine Bridgmohan and Winston Thompson represent places like Trinidad-&-Tobago, Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica, with American – born jockeys like Josiah Hampshire, Marlon St. Julien and DeShawn Parker stride for stride with their Caribbean cousins.
Now, 105 years since Winkfield’s victory, a Black man could make and take his two minutes into history. Shaun Bridgmohan, born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, will have a very live horse when he comes to post riding the three-year-old colt Pyro in this year’s Kentucky Derby.
Although St. Julien did appear in a Derby in 2000, his mount was a clear longshot, while Pyro, who has back class in former champions A.P. Indy and Seattle Slew, may be the hoss for the course.
When asked about the possible ramifications should Bridgmohan and Pyro cross the finish line first, trainer Steve Asmussen, in a recent National Thoroughbred Racing Association teleconference would only say, “It’s not the first time I’ve been asked the question,” before pausing and saying, “but, hey – Shaun and I are just getting started.”
And the “start” for this pair could attract the attention the sport so badly needs.
Bridgmohan, who won a riding title in the Midwest at Chicago’s Arlington Park in 2005, moved from Jamaica to Florida during his teen years.
He worked as a groom and exercise rider at Calder Race Course while attending high school. After winning his first race at Calder (aboard Glitter Lad) in 1997, Bridgmohan would eventually move his tack to New York’s Aqueduct Race Track, where he became an Eclipse Award for top apprentice jockey in 1998.
Since then, Bridgmohan has stayed among the top money winners, consistently charting in the top 100 purse – earning riders in North America, winning riding championships at Aqueduct and Churchill Downs, as well as being a recipient of the Caribbean Sportsmen Award in his homeland of “J.A.”
Bridgmohan rode Pyro as a two-year-old in last year’s Breeders’ Cup, with the two earning place money in the slop at Monmouth Park.
Asmussen sees improvement in Pyro, now older and wiser. “He’s done all things I look for as a horse becomes this age. More disciplined and inclined to focus on business; still playful but not nearly as playful as before.”
Pyro, who is a closer, will have to have a few things work out for him, but in any big race, you need a little racing luck for a positive result.
Years ago, this would’ve been a “Joe Louis moment” where society gets to glimpse at a man’s humanity through his endeavors and not because of them. The unwillingness – for whatever reason – to not acknowledge great things that benefit the whole of the sport and the whole of humanity as it pertains to thoroughbred racing is to be laid directly at the feet of those same mint julep sippers, who treat this with an arrogance and noblesse oblige worthy of Marie Antoinette.
It’s to the credit of a great jockey like Russell Baze, with over 10,000 wins to his credit, that he rides, remembers and respects the legacy of a nonpareil performer like Isaac Murphy, whose award in his name is given annually to the rider with the highest winning percentage (Murphy retired with a recorded career win percentage of over 44%).
Well, before Louis, Jack Johnson, Ali, Michael Jordan, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Eldrick Woods, Paul Robeson, Edwin Moses or Herb Carnegie, there were the first great Black athletes – the thoroughbred jockeys.
Whatever result Bridgmohan and Pyro present on Race Day, rest assured there will be no forced exile for the rider, or no dismissal of his accomplishments.
The spirits of those first great athletes will have their moment to sip their juleps, and cheer for their man to negotiate through the stretch and bring that Noble Beast across the finish line first.
But unlike those previous Derbies, the world will see horse and rider pose for the photo together.
Believe me, it matters — a lot more than you think.