Theophilus Irvin Jr., who spent most of his 93 years working with Thoroughbred horses in one way or another, died Tuesday in Lexington after a long illness.
Mr. Irvin, the son of a horse trainer, was a child when he first took an interest in horses. His family lived next to the backstretch of Lexington's Thoroughbred track, the Kentucky Association, on Race Street.
"I'd jump over the fence and be at the races," he said in a 1999 interview with the Herald-Leader. "Naturally, I went to work breaking yearlings."
Mr. Irvin began breaking yearlings with his father at Hickory Farm near Lexington at age 15. In 1937, he got a license as an exercise boy. In 1947 he got his first trainer's license. And in the late 1970s, he became the first black man hired by the Kentucky State Racing Commission.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
He worked in the detention barn, primarily collecting urine samples from race winners and other top finishers for drug testing. He got the job after spending decades training horses for people such as J. Graham Brown, for whom Louisville's Brown Hotel is named, and Keene Daingerfield, who became a legendary racing steward.
"They'd never had a black man at the racing commission before," he said in the 1999 interview. "Any time you're new, people are going to look at you. But I had the backing of Keene Daingerfield. There were two or three incidents, but after a while, they realized that I was going to be there."
Mr. Irvin told The Daily Racing Form in 1991 that working as a patch-up man — helping horses recover from injuries — was the most enjoyable horse-related job he had.
"I always wanted to be a doctor," he told the Daily Racing Form. "And that was about as close as I could ever come. I got a big charge out of it when a horse was sent to me that needed a lot of time and work. It never bothered me that someone else would be down as the program trainer for a big outfit and the horse would win. I knew what I had to do with the horse to get him back. It gave me a lot of satisfaction."
Survivors include a sister, Jane Carson of Philadelphia, Pa.; a brother, Dudley Irvin of Philadelphia; and several nieces, nephews and step-grandchildren.
Arrangements were pending at Smith & Smith Funeral Home.