Not long ago, Lexington historian Yvonne Giles was reading a story about jockey Kevin Krigger, who has a serious shot at winning the Kentucky Derby aboard Goldencents this Saturday.
"He sounded so much like Isaac Murphy, his attitude about working with others, his impeccable timing on a horse," Giles said. "He even sounded like a description of Murphy in his obituary: 'plain sensible, skillful, and honest, almost to a fault.'"
Giles is an expert on Murphy, a black jockey from Lexington who won the Derby three times in the 1880s and 1890s, whose former home site on Third Street is being turned into a memorial art garden.
"I don't know if anyone else noticed, but I certainly did."
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People have certainly noticed Krigger this Derby season, first for his historic win as the first black jockey ever to win the Santa Anita Derby aboard Goldencents. Krigger's name has been paired with Murphy and Jimmy Winkfield, another Lexingtonian and the last black jockey to win the Derby in 1901 and 1902. Back then, Murphy, Winkfield and a host of others dominated the field, winning 15 of the first 28 Derbies. But with the onset of legalized segregation after 1896, that era and accomplishments of black jockeys were pointedly forgotten in most of the annals of racing history.
More than 100 years later, Krigger, a native of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, 29, knows the stories of Murphy and Winkfield and understands the weight of history he will carry on Saturday. But like many before him, Krigger is a reluctant symbol.
"Of course I understand — if I didn't, something has to be wrong," Krigger said in a telephone interview. "But I always used to feel that these people don't see me as a white rider or Hispanic or black ... by the time I got people to notice me, it was because I was a good rider."
Certainly, athletes like Arthur Ashe, Venus and Serena Williams and Tiger Woods have long broken the racial barriers of traditionally white sports. In some ways, it would be a bigger story in racing if the lone woman jockey, Rosie Napravnik, won, becoming the first woman ever to be in the Derby winner's circle. The difference is that unlike tennis or golf, horse racing used to be dominated by black athletes. In other words, Krigger is not paving the way into a mostly white sport; he's re-entering a traditionally black one.
"What excites me about Kevin Krigger being in the Derby and getting the attention he's getting is that it gives recognition to all the black jockeys who've ridden in this race whose stories are so often overlooked," said Thomas Tolliver, a board member of the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden, which is being built on the corner of Third and Midland, near Lexington's former racetrack at the end of Race Street. "You can't write the story about Kevin Krigger without mentioning it's been 111 years since there was a winning black jockey, and you have to talk about why they disappeared, and the contributions they made."
History, like Thoroughbred pedigrees, can move in cyclical ways. Goldencents is descended through his maternal line from Magnolia, a foundation mare from Henry Clay's breeding operation at Ashland, according to Laurie Ross, a pedigree analyst for Horseracingnation.com. When Jimmy Winkfield won the Derby in 1902, it was aboard Alan-a-Dale, a homebred owned by Henry Clay's grandson, Thomas Clay McDowell. (As nice as it would be for the history books, Goldencents and Alan-a-Dale share some ancestors but are not considered related in Thoroughbred terms, Ross said.)
Why black jockeys vanished from racing
Why black jockeys disappeared lies largely at the feet of Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized segregation and led to the separate, unequal facilities and treatment throughout the South and beyond.
"The easy answer was that purses got larger, and white jockeys and trainers started to kick black jockeys out," said Maryjean Wall, author of How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers and Breeders. "But no one has done a study of that.
"I don't think it was a conscious act that way, I think it was all part of this prevailing fear and paranoia in white society at the time that spilled over into the horse racing world. Now we're legally segregated and we've tried to make blacks disappear, and you can't have them riding these super horses because then they are visible in society. They became grooms and exercise riders, but they're not jockeys any more."
Then, black and white society became more urban than rural, so fewer people in general grew up around horse racing or horses in general. By the time horse tracks had officially stopped blocking blacks from coming or stopped making them sit in separate seats in the 1960s, there weren't that many coming to begin with, said Jamie Nicholson, author of The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America's Premier Sporting Event. "The crowd was white before the 1960s, and it was white afterwards," Nicholson said.
Krigger may get grouped in with a group of Caribbean, Latin American and South American jockeys, who dominate racing in the U.S. today, Nicholson said. For Crucians, history is also being made by Victor Lebron, a jockey of Hispanic descent from St. Croix, who will ride Frac Daddy on Saturday.
If Krigger won, "it would be a great story, not just for the Derby, but for the whole sport," Nicholson said. At the same time, "things have changed a lot in the past 10 or 20 years. The fact that he can choose to be just a rider doesn't take away from any of his accomplishments."
'Work ethic will break that barrier'
Krigger thinks there are plenty of other reasons the camera crews stay by his side. First, there's Goldencents' part-owner, Rick Pitino, who's had a pretty good year in another sport. Or there's Goldencents' trainer, Doug O'Neill, who took a chance on Krigger and will try to win back-to-back Derbies, after last year's victory with I'll Have Another.
"I want to win the Kentucky Derby and keep that momentum going," Krigger said.
Krigger grew up around horses on St. Croix, where horse racing was popular. With the help of his grandfather, he started riding ponies at a young age, and soon migrated to the local track. He watched all the Triple Crown races on TV, and remembers thinking that all he wanted to do was become a jockey.
He raced in St. Croix for several years, then moved to bigger tracks in Ohio before moving to California. Aside from a year back in St. Croix, Krigger worked solidly, sometimes successful, sometimes not, before making it into the spotlight.
Krigger is often praised for his work ethic around the track. That's what will get any jockey ahead in the game, he says.
"My advice to any black person who wants to ride racehorses is not to use excuses, but make sure your work ethic will break that barrier."
As for Saturday, Krigger is determined to do well, whether he makes it into the history books or not. And whether he wins or not, a few more people will have learned about the black jockeys who came before him.
"I'm going to enjoy this," he said. "The best part of this goal is that I'm actually a nice person, and people enjoy working around me, and that alone makes it worth it for everyone."