St. Julien, Marlon 1972–
Marlon St. Julien 1972–
In a sporting community that had long forgotten the early successes of its African-American pioneers, horse racing took a trip back in history in 2000 when Marlon St. Julien became the first black rider since 1921 to compete in the Kentucky Derby. With the absence of African-American riders spanning 79 years, St. Julien brought class and color to horse racing’s most esteemed event.
Born in Lafayette, Louisiana in 1972, St. Julien was initially drawn to football as well as horse racing. In high school, he played football his freshman and sophomore years. By that time, he was lifting weights and consuming nutritional supplements, bulking up to 139 pounds. St. Julien thus found himself in a tough decisionmaking situation. While he had aspired to be a jockey, his football exercise regimen could have ruined his chances in both sports. “I’m either going to be too big to be a jockey or too small to be a football player,” St. Julien realized, according to the Keeneland Downs website. So he decided to focus on riding and lost 29 pounds.
For an aspiring jockey, St. Julien certainly had surrounded himself with the right people. Some of his uncles had owned horses. Additionally, his school teacher mother was a frequent visitor to the racetrack. Her interest provided him with an early exposure to the racing community, its lingo, and its trends.
He began competing while still in high school and won his first race at Evangeline Downs in 1989, when he was a high school junior. St. Julien continued to ride until he graduated. “I intended to go to college,” he said on the Keeneland Downs website, “but each year something better would happen.” He won his first stakes event at Evangeline Downs in 1992 in the $20,000 Coca-Cola Classic Handicap. In both 1993 and 1994, St. Julien earned the status of a top-ranked rider at Delta Downs. He later accomplished the same feat in 1998 at Lone Star and 1999 at Kentucky Downs.
Throughout the 1990s, St. Julien continued making a name for himself as a winner. In 1998 he won his first $100,000 stakes riding Caro’s Royalty in the Grand Prairie Gold Cup at Lone Star. Later that year he won his 1000th race. In 1999 St. Julien shifted gears at the urging of fellow riders and relocated from the Texas tracks to those in Kentucky.
Among his fellow riders, there were a few African-Americans. By watching other black riders, St. Julien
Born February 13, 1972, in Lafayette, LA; married to Denise; children: Jasmin.
Career: Jockey. Leading rider, Lone Star Park, 1997; three-win day, Keeneland, 1999; tied for leading rider, Kentucky Downs, 2000; Kentucky Derby, 2000.
Addresses: Arlington International Race Track, Jockey’s Room, P.O. Box 7, Arlington Heights, IL 60006.
could see the possibilities for himself on track. He also noted things to avoid. “I noticed some of them had it in their mind that because they were black, they couldn’t do this or that,” St. Julien was quoted as saying on ABCnews.com. “I never put it in my mind that way.” Still, with African-American jockeys—even practice jockeys—at a premium, St. Julien experienced bouts with negativity. “They never did give him a chance down home, the chance that he deserved because he was a different color,” St. Julien’s agent, Randy Romero, said on ABCnews.com. “Maybe that was a little help to get him started,” Romero added.
St. Julien kept riding, gaining more experience with each race. By 1999, he was recognized as one of the top riders of the sport. In the fall of 2000 he committed to racing full-time at Keeneland Downs and Churchill Downs. It proved to be a smart move for St. Julien. At Keeneland Downs, he won 12 races. Among those was a rare triple-win day on October 10, 1999. His successful momentum, like his winning horses, maintained and even picked up speed as the season continued.
During that 1999 season, St. Julien ranked fifth in rider standings. He also won three stakes, including wins in the A.P. Indy riding Ayrial Delight, the Warfield aboard Loon, and the Grade 3 Fayette Breeders’ Cup while riding Social Charter. That same year, he tied with a fellow rider for the leading rider position. Additionally, St. Julien took top honors in the Grade 3 Iroquois at Churchill riding Mighty, and also won the Ellis Park Juvenile Stakes riding Personal First.
With a string of victories, St. Julien was not only fortifying his name in the horse racing community, but solidifying his bank account as well. In 1999 alone, St. Julien won 165 races, boosting his annual earnings to $5.1 million in 1999, up from $4.3 million the previous year. St. Julien’s success was a result of his focus on the sport. “I have a talent and I try to put it to good use,” he said on the Keeneland Downs website. “I’ve done well in Kentucky from the very first. It seems like it was meant to be.”
In 2000 St. Julien received the phone call of a lifetime. Weeks before horse racing’s biggest showcase event, the Kentucky Derby, St. Julien was informed that he would be a part of the 2000 race. St. Julien was the first African-American jockey to race the Kentucky Derby since Henry King in 1919.
Riding onto the track for the biggest horse race of the year is quite an accomplishment for anyone, let alone a 28-year-old. And despite finishing seventh in the 19-horse field, St. Julien’s presence alone on the track was an unmistakable accolade. “I just wanted to be considered as one of the best riders in the country, whether black, white, purple, blue or brown,” St. Julien told Jet. “I also want to leave the game with a lot of respect and say I accomplished a lot in my career.”
In 2000, ABC television honored Black History Month with a televised special entitled “Raising the Roof: Seven Athletes for the 21st Century.” St. Julien’s accomplishments and projected success was a highlight of the program, which featured six other athletes.
St. Julien didn’t make the cut for the 127th running of the Kentucky Derby in 2001, but his presence in the horse racing community was still strong. “I think we’re here to accomplish something, not just to be here” St. Julien said on ABCnews.com. “I was put here to be a race rider and I’m going to be the best that I can be.”
Jet, May 22, 2000, pg. 51.
The Keeneland Downs website, http://www.keeneland.com
—John Horn and Jennifer M. York
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