Kevin Krigger after winning the Santa Anita Derby (Photo courtesy Eclipse Sportswire)
After winning the Santa Anita Derby atop the horse Goldencents, jockey Kevin Krigger is poised to become the first black jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby since Marlon St. Julien in 2000. Before St. Julien, no black jockeys had run in the Derby since 1921, a 79-year drought. This despite the fact that in the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875, 13 of the 15 riders were black.
The history of black jockeys in horse racing is a checkered one. The story of Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield illustrates the highs and lows of the history of black jockeys in the sport. The last black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, Wink’s story shows both the bright side of being the top of your field in sport and the particular humiliation of being a successful black athlete in not only the Jim Crow south, but even in Nazi Germany.
Born in Kentucky in 1882, Wink started riding professionally at the age of 16. At 18, he rode in the Kentucky Derby and finished third. At 19, he won the race on His Eminence and then won it again the very next year on Alan-a-Dale. In 1903, at the age of 21, Wink rode in his final Kentucky Derby and finished third. One hell of a four-year stretch!
Wink won over 160 races the first year he won the Kentucky Derby, yet his name was omitted from Goodwin’s Official Guide to the Turf. These were the early years of Jim Crow, the American South still reeling from the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” decision. Already by the early oughts, black race fans were being separated from whites in the grandstands of Kentucky racetracks. As the recession took hold, the number of white jockeys grew and the competition between white and black jockeys for mounts intensified. This competition often resulted in violence against black jockeys. Wink said he received death threats from the KKK after winning his first Derby. By 1904, he had enough and packed up for Russia.
In Czarist Russia, horse racing was enjoying enormous popularity. Wink, a recent two-time Kentucky Derby winner, was welcomed to Russia as a star. He earned more money than ever in his life and was celebrated rather than intimidated with violence. He rode professionally in Russia until 1917 when the Bolshevik revolution overthrew the Czar and brought the Communist Party to power. Wink fled Russia for France, where he raced professionally for over a decade, adding wins in the Prix du Président de la République, Grand Prix de Deauville, and the Prix Eugène Adam to his resume. He retired in 1930 and became a trainer.
WINK AT THE RACES IN FRANCE WITH BING CROSBY
In 1940, Wink had built up an impressive stable of horses for himself. But when Hitler’s army invaded and occupied France, the Nazi’s seized the stables and forced Wink to flee France for the country of his birth, the United States. In the U.S. during the throes of the depression, the best option available to this internationally celebrated rider and trainer was work on a WPA road crew, which he did humbly and proudly. After the end of the war Wink returned to his farm on the outskirts of Paris.
In 1961, 60 years after his first win in the Kentucky Derby, Wink returned to Louisville to attend the race as an honored guest. As a final indignity at the end of his days, Wink and his daughter Liliane were turned away from a prerace banquet at the famous Brown Derby hotel because of their race, despite being invited by Sports Illustrated. Louisville in 1961 was just starting to percolate with the fire of the civil rights movement that was creeping across the South, and by the end of the decade the mostly white genteel racing community would be the target of no less than Martin Luther King, Jr. himself. These kind of incidents, humiliating as they were, passed with little fanfare in 1961, however. Wink was eventually admitted to the banquet, but the damage had been done. Wink passed away on his farm in France in 1974 with 2,600 wins in his over three decades of riding racehorses on three continents.
Jimmy "Wink" Winkfield was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2004, one of three black jockeys to be bestowed that honor. In 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring him.
KRIGGER AFTER WINNINIG THE SANTA ANITA DERBY
Could Kevin Krigger be the next black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby? Last year, after nearly being awarded the mount on winner I’ll Have Another before losing out to Mario Gutierrez, he told the LA Watts Times “I feel that I am the best jockey, but I am not always on the best horse.”
This year after winning the Santa Anita Derby on Goldencents he told the Virgin Islands Daily that Goldencents was the best horse he had ever ridden. Perhaps now that the best horse and the best rider have finally united, Krigger likes his chances.
He was quick to point out, though, that he’s not just vying to be the first black jockey to win the race since Wink Winkfield, he’s also vying to be the first Virgin Islander to win it in history. The people of the Virgin Isles have supported him in ways he has yet to see in Southern California.
"One day that really stood out for me in the Virgin Islands was the first time when I went to St. Thomas. I walked in the pony parlor over there, and for the first time in my life, I had a standing ovation," he told the Virgin Islands Daily. "It felt really good. I've never walked into a place and felt as appreciated as that day."
He should get used to it. There will be plenty of people rooting for him the first Saturday in May. And plenty more on their feet when he rides that horse out of the tunnel.