Oliver Lewis, a black jockey, riding Aristides, one of two horses entered by H. Price McGrath, galloped to victory in 1875, before more than 10,000 excited, cheering fans, in the inaugural running of what would become known as the Kentucky Derby!
May 7th, 2001, will mark the 137th running of America’s premier horse race, the Kentucky Derby. This race is run annually the first Saturday in May, at Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky. This ritual, which heralds the arrival of Springtime, has been held here since 1875. This rite of Spring brings to this Kentucky city many beautiful (Belles) women, wearing wide brimmed, colorful hats. People from all walks of life, some drinking frosty mint juleps, made , of course, with genuine Kentucky Bourbon, to a place where some of the world’s finest and fast blooded Thoroughbred horses are assembled for the ‘Run for the Roses’.
The powerful role which blacks have played in the development of horse racing in these United States of America is virtually unknown. However, when one considers the large numbers of blacks in this industry, it appears to be a natural progression, simply because of the assigned duties of the slaves and servants to maintain the livery stable. Where they gained knowledge, developed skills and insight into the breeding, handling, care, and overall well-being of these valuable horses, which represented a huge investment to their masters.
Oliver Lewis, the jockey astride the winning Thoroughbred Aristides, was black, one of fifteen riders up for this race, contrary, to the often told story that there were two white jockeys in this race 137 years ago. Edward Hotaling’s The Great Black Jockeys states William Lakeland on Ascension and Cyrus Holloway – riding Enlister – were white. The author calls it, “pretty much an African American parade to the post”. Thirteen out of fifteen isn’t bad, thus confirming the preeminence of black jockeys in that first race.
Fame is fleeting (no pun intended), a fact Lewis would soon discover. Despite the fact that he brought home the winner, before 10,000 excited, cheering fans, set a record time of 2:37 3/4 for the mile, he would not fare as well as Aristides, the horse, who even today is honored by a statue. The horse which is ever present in the Winner’s Circle, where the TV cameras capture the horse, jockey, trainers, and other race officials gather to present the Blanket of Roses, the trophy and the purse, in the Clubhouse Gardens is the horse, but not a word about the black jockey who rode him past the winning pole.
For items which commemorate the achievements of African American men and women from all walks of life, visit my website. To learn more about Oliver Lewis and other black jockeys who dominated horse racing in the early years of the sport, check out The Great Black Jockeys.
(c) John M. Green 2011