In the early 19th century, Southern Thoroughbred breeders, including those in Kentucky, relied on slaves to care for, ride, and train their horses. After emancipation, many of these former slaves remained on the farms and, to a large degree, it was their expertise that allowed Kentucky to remain the nation’s Thoroughbred breeding center. In addition to mucking stalls and grooming horses, African Americans also became skilled and successful jockeys, trainers and eventually owners.
During Reconstruction, black jockeys dominated on America’s tracks, and many of the country’s most prestigious races were won by horses trained, ridden and in some cases owned, by African Americans. Racing was America’s favorite sport, and jockeys such as Isaac Murphy were national sport’s heroes.
In 1896, the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson endorsing the “separate but equal” doctrine led to the rise of racial discrimination throughout the country, including its racetracks. By the 1911 Kentucky Derby, only two jockeys were African American. Jockey Henry King’s tenth place finish in 1921 marked the last African American in the 20th century to ride in the nation’s most famous race.