Fayette County

Jockey James Long reflects on his storied career at first Phoenix Festival

Former jockey James Long spoke at the Phoenix Festival.
Former jockey James Long spoke at the Phoenix Festival.

During James Long’s 33-year career, he stacked cash — earning more than $1 million — and challenged stereotypes as one of the few black jockeys in horse racing during the 1970s.

Long, 62, was the guest of honor and speaker at the Phoenix Festival, a celebration Thursday afternoon recognizing the 164th running of the Phoenix Stakes. The race originated at the Kentucky Association racetrack, formerly located at the present-day location of William Wells Brown Elementary School. The tracked opened in 1828 and closed in 1933.

The Phoenix Festival took place at the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden on East Third Street. Murphy was a highly successful black jockey from Kentucky who competed during the late 1800s.

Long’s career in racing started when he was a senior at the New York School of Printing in Hell’s Kitchen. A high school teacher who was a horse racing fan invited him to Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., in 1972.

Long would spend the next two years cutting his teeth in the racing industry as a horse walker. In 1974, former Boston Celtics owner and breeder Harry T. Mangurian Jr. gave the 4-foot-8-inch, 98-pound Long his first shot at jockeying.

Long’s first win was on July 4, 1974, at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York’s South Ozone Park.

“It was a fantastic feeling,” Long said in an interview before the Phoenix Festival. “I didn’t know I was going to ride until the day before.”

Long would follow that win with the biggest of his career about a year later when he rode Valid Appeal to victory in the Dwyer Handicap at Belmont.

Over the next 30 years, horse racing would take Long to Jamaica, Canada, and back. He’s broken an ankle and three ribs and suffered an incalculable amount of concussions.

“It was the greatest riders and the greatest trainers and the greatest horsemen. I used to see Secretariat every day,” Long said. “I was in a great era of racing.”

The success Long experienced under renowned horse owners like Mangurian helped insulate him from most of the institutional racism that has plagued the horse-racing industry. For example, during the early 1900s, black jockeys were virtually banned from all major tracks, including Kentucky’s Churchill Downs, according to History.com’s Christopher Klein.

“Black participation dwindled, and no African-American rode the race between 1921 and 2000, when Marlon St. Julien guided Curule to a seventh-place finish,” Klein wrote.

In May 2013, Kevin Krigger became the first black jockey to compete in the Kentucky Derby since 1902.

Long retired in 2009. He now works for Hazel Park Raceway in Michigan.

The Phoenix Stakes will run at Keeneland at 4:57 p.m. Friday.

Fernando Alfonso III: 859-231-1324, @fernalfonso