African American dominance of early US horse racing in spotlight

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The African Americans in Racing Tour at Louisville's Churchill Downs Racetrack recalls the profound impact of Black horseman on the thoroughbred industry.
The African Americans in Racing Tour at Louisville’s Churchill Downs Racetrack recalls the profound impact of Black horseman on the thoroughbred industry. © Churchill Downs Racetrack

Did you know that 13 of the 15 horses in the first-ever Kentucky Derby were ridden by Black jockeys? Or that 15 of the first 28 Derby winners were ridden by Black jockeys?

A new immersive exhibit at the Kentucky Derby Museum is returning the spotlight to these pioneering horsemen, in the African Americans in Racing Tour at Louisville’s Churchill Downs Racetrack. On the 90 minute experience, guests will walk through the racetrack while making historically significant stops along the way. Through history, including the Jim Crow era that led to the exclusion of Black jockeys from the sport, and to modern times, guests will learn about the profound impact African Americans have made on horse racing from the very beginning.

The Museum is also launching the “Proud of My Calling” experience, a monthly, 60-minute immersive program where visitors are introduced to incredible Black horsemen through costumed actors, historic paintings, photos and objects from the past. Featured are greats including Oliver Lewis, Isaac Murphy and Ansel Williamson.

Lewis, a Black jockey, rode Aristides to victory in the first Kentucky Derby in 1875. Aristides’s trainer, Ansel Williamson, was born enslaved but became a successful trainer. Murphy, also born enslaved, is considered one of the greatest jockeys of all time, winning three Kentucky Derbys and an estimated 44% of his races.

The Museum has been sharing the important role African Americans have had on the Derby for decades. Since 1993, African Americans in Thoroughbred Racing, a permanent exhibit, has chronicled the impact African Americans have had on the Thoroughbred industry and the Kentucky Derby, and features some of the most significant artifacts in the Museum’s collection.

Additionally, the Museum’s Education Team teaches thousands of students each year about this important history through field trips and in-school teaching.

In Spring 2021, Kentucky Derby Museum is redesigning and moving its African Americans in Thoroughbred Racing exhibit to a larger and more prominent location within the Museum, as well as expanding the footprint of the exhibit. This will allow the Museum to display more of its collection and add new components. This exhibit will also feature oral history interviews conducted with Louisville’s African American community.

Jockey Oliver Lewis won the first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, aboard Aristides.
Jockey Oliver Lewis won the first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, aboard Aristides. © Churchill Downs Racetrack

A traveling African Americans in Thoroughbred Racing exhibit is to be created to travel to museums, community centers, visitor centers and churches.

» The African Americans in Racing Tour is available on Saturdays at 1pm and is $15 per person.

» “Proud of My Calling” is offered monthly and is $20 per person, starting March 27.

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