The Kentucky Derby Museum Is Revisiting The Sport’s Black History

The Aristides Garden.

“The most exciting two minutes in sports” is known for fancy hats, mint juleps, and lightning-fast thoroughbreds. The illustrious horse race is not so well known for Black equestrians, but the Kentucky Derby Museum hopes to change that with its new Black Heritage in Racing tour on Saturdays that covers the galleries and the adjacent Churchill Downs racetrack.

Kentucky’s thoroughbred racing industry has a long history of world-class Black jockeys and trainers, but the rise of Jim Crow laws in the South pushed them out of the sport. On the tour, this history comes alive from the grandstand overlooking the track as a guide tells captivating stories of Black jockeys’ history-making victories. It also takes in the Churchill Downs clubhouse and the Peb Murals, named for Pierre “Peb” Bellocq, the cartoonist that created them. The former features fun caricatures of Derby-winning jockeys and the latter is a tribute to the unsung trainers who helped them get to the Winner’s Circle. 

In Aristides Garden, a larger-than-life bronze statue honors the champion thoroughbred that won the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875 with Black jockey Oliver Lewis, a native Kentuckian. In fact, 13 of the 15 jockeys that year were Black. For the first 28 years of the Kentucky Derby, African-American jockeys won 15. Another one you’ll learn about is Kentuckian Isaac Burns Murphy, one of the best jockeys of all time. The three-time Derby winner went from slave to superstar in the late 1800s. Today, he would probably have product endorsements, millions of Instagram followers, and a blog. 

The tour concludes at an exhibit of historical artifacts, where the group reads aloud the names of Black Derby-
winning jockeys as a remembrance.  The recitation feels like a prayer for future racial equality in the sport that still defines the Bluegrass State today.