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Showing the Way : The Early Derbies Were Dominated by Black Jockeys

May 01, 1993|GEOFF STRAIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the 118 Kentucky Derbies run since 1875, only four jockeys have won in consecutive years. Two are familiar to modern race fans: Eddie Delahoussaye, who won on Gato Del Sol in 1982 and again the next year on Sunny's Halo, and Ron Turcotte, whose victory aboard Riva Ridge in 1972 was followed by his record-setting triumph on Triple crown winner Secretariat in 1973.

But the other two winners of consecutive Derbies raced in a nearly forgotten era, when Pullman cars brought race goers from around the country, mint juleps were only a dime, and black jockeys dominated the race.

Beginning in 1875, when Oliver Lewis rode Aristides to victory in the first Derby--14 of the 15 riders in that Derby were black--black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 and set the standard in the early years at Churchill Downs.

No one carried that standard higher than Isaac Murphy, the first jockey to win two in a row and the first man to win three Kentucky Derbies.

Murphy was born in Kentucky in 1861, the son of a free man who joined the Union Army and died in a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp. Murphy's mother was a laundress for the Owens and Williams Racing Stable, and Isaac began galloping their horses when he was 13.

He was soon running races at local tracks and rode his first winner on Sept. 15, 1876, in Lexington. A week later, he won the Blue Grass Stakes at Louisville. He gained national attention when he won the Travelers Stakes, the nation's oldest race, at Saratoga in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1879.

His scored his first Derby victory in 1884, under trying circumstances.

He was scheduled to ride for owner William Cottrill, but when Cottrill announced Buchanan as his Derby entry, Murphy refused to ride the unruly, winless colt, having been thrown by him in an earlier race in Nashville.

Cottrill filed a complaint with the Louisville Jockey Club, which then operated Churchill Downs. When the Club ruled that Murphy would ride Buchanan or not at all, he grudgingly complied, then rode the headstrong colt to a two-length victory.

Murphy rode to victory in the Derby again in 1890, aboard a 4-1 colt named Riley.

And the next year, riding Kingman, he competed in one of the oddest Derbies ever run. Only four horses were entered in that 1891 race, which was run at 1 1/2 miles. Each rider was under orders to restrain his horse until the mile mark, and they started the race riding four abreast, like the Cartwrights surveying the Ponderosa.

Whenever one horse surged forward, his jockey reined him in. It took the foursome 2:26 3/4 to cover the present day distance of 1 1/4 miles--Secretariat's Derby Record is 1:59 2/5--but then Murphy turned his mount loose and the sprint to the finish was on. Less than two lengths separated the four horses as Murphy's Kingman held on for a half-length victory in the slowest Kentucky Derby ever run, 2:52 1/4. Murphy, though, had become the first man to win consecutive Derbies.

Murphy raced little after that and soon retired to his Lexington home. Sadly, however, his long battle to maintain weight began to take a toll on his health. He died of pneumonia in 1896, at 35, and was given one of the largest funerals in Lexington history.

In contrast to Murphy, Jimmy Winkfield, the next man to win successive Derbies, was able to reflect on his career into his 90s.

Born in Chilesburg, Ky., in 1882, Winkfield began galloping horses for trainer Bub May, and, at 16, followed May to Chicago.

His first race, at Hawthorne in Chicago, was a disaster. Riding from the outside post in a four-horse field, the inexperienced Winkfield broke immediately for the inside rail, wiping out the rest of the field. When the horses and jockeys were untangled, the stewards slapped a year's suspension on Winkfield.

In 1900, Winkfield rode the colt Thrive to third place in the Kentucky Derby. In his four Derby starts, that turned out to be his worst finish.

Winkfield's Derby mount in 1901 was His Eminence, and the favorite was the highly regarded Alard Scheck, at odds of 7-10. Winkfield broke to the front, though, and was never headed, leading wire to wire. Alard Scheck finished last.

Winkfield used a bit of gamesmanship while preparing for the 1902 Derby. Both Winkfield and Nash Turner, a prominent white jockey, were scheduled to ride for Thomas Clay McDowell, who had both The Rival and Alan-A-Dale. During workouts, Winkfield deliberately held back Alan-A-Dale, and when Turner arrived in Louisville and checked the fractions, he made what seemed an obvious choice, picking The Rival as his mount.

That left Winkfield with Alan-A-Dale, as he had planned.

On race day, Winkfield went quickly to the front of the four-horse field, then used his cunning to his advantage. When the 3-5 favorite, Abe Frank, charged on Winkfield's right shoulder, he eased Alan-A-Dale to the outside, moving Abe Frank into the heavy sand along the far rail. Abe Frank quickly tired and ultimately finished last.

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