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New exhibit highlights historical impact, contributions of Black jockeys in horseracing

A permanent exhibit at the Kentucky Derby Museum is highlighting the history and contributions of African American jockeys dating back to the 1800s.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville is nicknamed the Derby City for a reason. 

The history of horse racing runs deep and it’s due, in part, to the contributions of African American jockeys.

It’s a part of history that’s often overlooked, but a permanent exhibit at the Kentucky Derby Museum is making sure it’s not forgotten.

The exhibit is called Black Heritage in Racing. It reflects Black history of the Derby through photos, artifacts and information dating back to the 1800s. That’s when African Americans dominated the Kentucky Derby.

“The enslaved that were on a lot of the southern plantations were taking care of the horses in all ways, and that includes riding the horses as jockeys,” said Chris Goodlett, Kentucky Derby Museum director of curatorial and educational affairs.

In 1875 for the first running of the Derby, 13 of the 15 jockeys were Black including the winner, Oliver Lewis. Black jockeys went on to win 15 of the first 28 Run for the Roses.

But, things changed.

“You’re talking about racing in the south, you’re talking about the institution of slavery,” Goodlett said.

Black men went from grabbing the silk purse at the finish line to not being able to mount at the starting gate.

Credit: WHAS-TV
Black Heritage in Racing exhibit at the Kentucky Derby Museum

“Organizations would make it very difficult for African American jockeys to get licenses or sometimes they would not give licenses to African American jockeys at all,” Goodlett said.

They also faced physical harm.

“On the racetrack a lot of white jockeys would use physical intimidation tactics against African Americans,” Goodlett added.

On a racecourse outside Chicago, Jimmie Winkfield’s white counterparts rode him against the rail. It’s called rough riding and it can hurt the rider and the horse.

Racism changed the narrative of the Derby for more than a century. Even now, 147 years since the first Derby, there are not a lot of Black jockeys in the sport; one hasn’t crossed the finish line first since 1902.

Credit: WHAS-TV
Black jockeys featured in the historical exhibit at the Kentucky Derby Museum.

It’s a part of history not often talked about, but this exhibit hopes to keep alive.

The Black Heritage in Racing exhibit at the Kentucky Derby Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Prices start at $11.

For more information on the Kentucky Derby Museum an the exhibit, click here.

Contact reporter Kristin Pierce at kpierce@whas11.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook

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