Kevin Krigger, a rare African-American jockey, will chase history at the… (Benoit Photo / Associated…)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Contrary to popular perception, this will not be the first Kentucky Derby ride for jockey Kevin Krigger. Maybe his fifth or sixth.
Of course, when he got his first saddle as a teenager in the Virgin Islands, he didn't have the likes of racehorse Goldencents under that saddle, as he will Saturday, in the 139th Derby.
"I think I got my first saddle when I was 13," Krigger says. "So, when it was time for the Kentucky Derby, I'd put it up on the couch at home, in front of the TV set, and I'd ride the race."
He rode many races that way, not just the Derby. And, with a nod to the fantasy of youth, when he loads into the No. 8 post position late Saturday afternoon, he will be unbeaten in the Run for the Roses.
"I rode a lot of races on that couch," Krigger says. "But I never missed the Derby."
Now he is 29, and fantasy gives way to reality. His mount is the co-favorite with Revolutionary at 5-1. He also happens to be riding for the trainer who won last year's Derby and Preakness, Doug O'Neill. O'Neill attracts media attention like flypaper attracts flies, so Krigger did not slip quietly onto the scene.
But then he couldn't have, anyway.
Krigger, from St. Croix, Virgin Islands, is a rare black jockey in a historically white-rider-only Derby. The first Kentucky Derby was in 1875. Thirteen of the first 15 races were won by black jockeys. That number extended to 15 of the first 28 Derbies.
Now, Krigger is chasing the first victory here by a black jockey since 1902, when Jimmy Winkfield won his second straight. A Sports Illustrated summation in 2006 of Joe Drape's book about Winkfield, "The Black Maestro," says that Winkfield quit riding in the United States and took his tack to Russia because "the more he won, the more white Americans despised him."
Further perspective on Krigger's upcoming race is the fact that the most recent black jockey to climb aboard for the Derby was Marlon St. Julien, in 2000. He was ending a 79-year drought. Also significant is that Winkfield was put into the Racing Hall of Fame.
Krigger, placed in a position of pioneer, has done his best here to both accept that and not dwell on it. His emphasis has been more on the fact that, while he is relatively unheralded and is a rookie in this most important of all races, he is not intimidated and he belongs.
"I think of it like a school exam," he says. "You study and study and they say the exam is five days away. The day arrives and they postpone the exam. Next year, same thing. And on and on. Now, they are going to have the exam and I'm ready. I never stopped studying."
Like so many jockeys, his fascination with horses began at an early age. At 5, he remembers getting onto a horse by jumping from the roof of a car. The island of St. Croix is about 28 miles wide, and Krigger says he lived about as far away as you could from the track without getting wet. As a wide-eyed youngster, he often made the two-hour trek on foot.
"I'd start out, trying to get a ride," he says. "But I knew when it was post time, and so, if I didn't get a ride by 9:45 in the morning, I just started walking."
Eventually, he started riding, and winning. He went to the United States, raced in several places, including Emerald Downs in Washington and Golden Gates Fields in Northern California. Then he had the good fortune of being summoned by veteran Southern California jockey agent Tom Knust, who had just lost Pat Valenzuela, possibly for good, to injury. The Southern California jockey colony is a Frank Sinatra song. If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere.
Krigger embraced his big chance, and Knust had him out at the barns every morning, bright and early, working thoroughbreds, meeting trainers, continuing to study for that big exam.
"I never found a horse in bed," Krigger says.
O'Neill, as friendly and loosey-goosey a trainer as you'll find, put newcomer Mario Gutierrez on I'll Have Another last year and got two-thirds of the Triple Crown out of that move. So he was open to Krigger and Krigger was certainly open to Goldencents.
"I'm not just out there on any old horse," he says.
Indeed, this time for Kevin Krigger, the Kentucky Derby is no couch-potato ride.