Friday, May 2, 2008

The real Afri-Am connection to the KY Derby

Jimmy Winkfield atop Alan-A-Dale in the 1902 KY Derby victory

On Derby Eve, like everything else in America, we've forgotten the African-American origins of this 130 plus year racing tradition. Blame it on decades of racial discrimination that eventually excluded blacks from a sport in which they were commonplace. Call it a lazy reading of history by us all. For whatever reason, black folks have seemingly relinquished what goes on at Churchill Downs as a de facto "whites only" affair.

Not so!

Visit the KY Derby website here to learn more. Or read 'The Great Black Jockeys' by Edward Hotaling. Or order the KET episode, 'Black Jockeys: A Forgotten Legacy'.

My rant from LEO's "Run From the Roses: The Perfect Derby Issue":

"Being a child of the 1980s, born and raised in West Louisville, you might expect that my sole memories of the Kentucky Derby come from cruising on Broadway. And it’s true; I can’t recall anything noteworthy about the Chow Wagon or Churchill Downs.

Sadly, cruising — that now-defunct accumulation of spruced-up cars, family oriented vendors and wandering pedestrians that once filled Broadway — has voided an entire generation’s historical viewpoint of the Kentucky Derby’s relationship to African-Americans. Before black jockeys became a symbol of dehumanizing minstrelsy for the front lawn of many sophisticated rednecks, they were the premiere athletes of the late 19th century.

Shamefully, Oliver Lewis, who rode Aristides to victory in the inaugural Derby in 1875, is all but forgotten. Fewer still know about the 15-year-old phenomenon Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton, who rode Azra to victory in 1892 — the youngest jockey to win a Kentucky Derby. If you’re lucky, Isaac Murphy, the greatest jockey of all time, who won three straight Derbys, makes the pop culture lexicon. Give credit to historians and the Kentucky Derby Museum for keeping them alive for posterity.

Fast forward more than 100 years.

Most of my peers’ anecdotes about this annual equine sprint are anchored to the good, bad and ugly happenings of cruising years past. Broadway is our Derby history archive.

Today, Lonnie Clayton is a 13-year-old kid dancing suggestively with a woman twice his age atop a car, her clothing suggesting she is an exotic dancer. His Aristides is a lime green candy-painted Impala.

I’m not particularly upset that cruising was aborted. Frankly, the arguments against it were better than the ones for keeping it. What I am bitter about is unimaginative city leaders and pigheaded hip-hoppers who have zero understanding of how the Kentucky Derby is related to the African-American community. That history is deep, rich and worth more than the embarrassing image of West Broadway abandoned on days designed to overflow the city with people."


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