Katherine C. Mooney—
In the spring of 1955, the new Sports Illustrated made a bold choice and retained William Faulkner to cover the Kentucky Derby. The ’55 Derby turned out to be one of the great contests in the history of the race, as California’s Swaps overturned favorite Nashua. It was a good thing the magazine also commissioned a conventional account of the contest, because Faulkner’s copy didn’t name either horse.
In the half-light of a Churchill Downs morning, as Faulkner stood at the rail, a Black exercise rider, the only identified speaker in the whole article, suggested the crowd move back. “Here’s the big horse coming,” he told them. The informed reader could discern that the horse was Nashua, since Faulkner mentioned that Eddie Arcaro, Nashua’s jockey and the winner of five Kentucky Derbies, perched in the saddle. But Faulkner’s goal was not to provide play-by play. Instead, he was meditating on what it felt like to watch a mighty animal in motion, preparing for a contest commensurate with his majesty. The horse didn’t seem interested in looking at anything, but that wasn’t surprising, since “the sycophant adulant human roar has faded behind his drumming feet too many times for us to hold his attention. And…he has seen track before and it usually looks like this one does from this point (just entering the backstretch): empty.”1 The crowd watched the horse as he hit full stride, soaring “not graceless so much as too busy to bother with grace…voracious…for speed and distance.” Faulkner wanted to capture the physical moment of awe that fans and commentators would scrabble to make sense of afterward and try to pin down in a narrative about winning and losing. He argued that horse racing offered this kind of wonder in its purest form and marveled that anyone could withstand its allure.
It’s hard to imagine all this now. The ads for this year’s Kentucky Derby seem to rely mostly on the borrowed glamor of expensive bourbon, high-end day dresses, and Tom Brady. The horses are an incidental addition. But, in 1955, Faulkner was several decades closer to the centuries when Thoroughbred racing reigned as the most popular sport in America, when people were more closely acquainted with the beauty and grandeur that he was putting on paper. And it is apt that the only identified speaker in Faulkner’s essay is a Black man, since Black men have worked on the backstretches of American tracks as far back as there have been American tracks. Indeed, the Kentucky Derby is one of the great sites of African-American history and achievement in this country.
Kentucky has long been a cradle of the Thoroughbred, but, in 1875, Louisville businessmen founded a track to serve as the shop window for the state’s horse farms. Churchill Downs would be the site of a new Kentucky Derby, a stakes race for three-year-olds modeled on the English Classic, first run in 1780 at Epsom. The 1875 Derby winner, Aristides, won in an upset. Ansel Williamson, the horse’s trainer, was in his sixties and had lived in slavery for most of his life. He and other Black horsemen had gained fame before the Civil War; they were celebrities who could not reap the benefits of their labor, who could be separated from their families and their friends. After the war, those same men continued to work in racing stables, passing on their craft to younger men. Oliver Lewis, Aristides’s Black jockey, had been a child when slavery ended. Between 1875 and 1902, more than half of the jockeys who won the Derby were Black; many of them got a leg up from Black trainers like Williamson.
The riders and trainers of Kentucky Derby winners were among the most famous Black men in America in their time. Isaac Murphy, who won three Kentucky Derbies and became the first man to win two back-to-back, was perhaps the nation’s first true Black superstar athlete in the 1880s. “As he vaulted into the saddle of a great race horse on a great occasion,” remembered a journalist decades later, “…he looked as handsome as Phateon must have looked when he stepped into his chariot to guide the sun.”2 One white memoirist later recalled that, when he was a child, every boy he knew wanted to be Isaac Murphy. Murphy’s friend Peter Jackson, a Black Australian heavyweight who came to the United States seeking a title fight, found that white boxers refused to step into the ring with him. He raged that such a refusal would be absolutely unthinkable in racing, where Murphy and his fellow Black jockeys lined up against white men every day and often beat them. These men lived in a time when Black citizenship was a matter of daily and violent contestation, when the nation openly debated what freedom and equality meant in real life. And they showed, in their own way, the potential results of what Frederick Douglass called “a fair field and no favor,” a world where Black men could be national heroes, a true multiracial democracy.
Jimmy Winkfield repeated Murphy’s feat in 1901 and 1902, riding back-to-back Kentucky Derby winners and nearly scoring again in 1903. He left the United States shortly thereafter, unable to get quality mounts, and made his way to Russia and then to France. Most of his contemporaries shared his struggles, as, at the turn of the twentieth century, Black men no longer got the horses they once had to train and ride. Jim Crow, given the imprimatur of the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, triumphed.
In 1967, as fair housing protests wracked the city of Louisville, civil rights activists debated about whether they should try to shut down that year’s Kentucky Derby as a bargaining tactic. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had participated in some of the marches in the city, along with Louisville native Muhammad Ali, was reluctant to endorse the strategy. The Louisville Defender, the city’s Black newspaper, published an issue filled with the stories of early Derbies. The Derby, the editors implied, shouldn’t be shut down. Instead, it should be remembered as an institution in which Black men had played a formative role. The papers didn’t mention the African-American horsemen who had stayed on the track for generations after the more lucrative, publicly noted roles of trainer and jockey had become virtually impossible for Black men to obtain in top-level racing. But Jim Crow never drove them away. In 1972 and 1973, Eddie Sweat became the first horseman to groom back-to-back Kentucky Derby winners in Riva Ridge and the immortal Secretariat.
In 2022, the videography team behind the YouTube channel Real Players Inside the Backstretch came to Churchill Downs. They interviewed groom Jerry Dixon, Sr., a third-generation Black horseman who started at Churchill as a teenager with an after-school job. A few days after the interview, Dixon and his son, Jerry Dixon, Jr., led 80-1 longshot Rich Strike into the Derby winner’s circle. That video racked up a lot of views for the channel, but there are hundreds of other interviews posted with the people who do the daily work of the track. The interviewees tend to be, as turf journalist Jay Hovdey points out, Black, Latinx, and female, because, “newsflash—that is the face of the modern North American backstretch.”3 The work can be punishing. But they stay—because it’s a job, because they have friends and family there, because they take pride in their work and skill, and because of that thing Faulkner was trying to document almost seventy years ago—how it feels to be in the presence of a great racehorse.
- William Faulkner, “Kentucky: May: Saturday,” Sports Illustrated May 1955, 23-24.
- “Famous American Jockeys,” Thoroughbred Record 6 March 1920, 180-181
- Jay Hovdey, “Introducing the untold stories of the backstretch,” Thoroughbred Racing Commentary February 18 2022, https://bit.ly/3HFO9me.
Katherine C. Mooney is James P. Jones Associate Professor of History at Florida State University. She is the author of Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack and Isaac Murphy: The Rise and Fall of a Black Jockey. She lives in Tallahassee, FL.