Winkfield, Jimmy 1882–1974
Jimmy Winkfield 1882–1974
The sport of horse racing in the southern United States grew from the region’s plantations and farms, and the rider of a prestigious racehorse in the 1800s was often a slave or servant of the horse’s owner. For several decades after the Civil War, African-American jockeys dominated horse racing, but they were forced out when the sport outgrew its agrarian roots and began to emerge as a focal point for big-money gambling. One of the greatest of these African-American jockeys was Jimmy Winkfield, the last black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. Winkfield notched impressive accomplishments on American racetracks—and his international career, which followed his Derby victory, would furnish ideal material for a film screenplay or novel.
Born on April 12, 1882, in Chilesburg near Lexington, Kentucky, Jimmy Winkfield was the youngest of 17 children in a sharecropper’s family. He dropped out of school after the seventh or eighth grade, but he gained an education of a different kind as he grew up in Kentucky’s horse country. By age seven he could ride a horse bareback, and he was working in horse stables well before reaching his teens. Soon his slight build—he was under five feet tall and weighed about 115 pounds—began to give people the idea that he would make a good jockey himself. He got a job when he was about 15 at Kentucky’s Latonia racetrack (now Turfway Park), and by the late 1890s he had racked up several dozen victories.
Winkfield’s first job paid $8 a month, which he considered generous at the time. When he placed third in the 1900 Kentucky Derby, however, he began to earn a major reputation at a time when horse race purses were growing. Soon the best jockeys could command top dollar. Winkfield won both the 1901 and 1902 Kentucky Derby races, becoming only one of four jockeys ever to win the race in two successive years. For the second win, he collected a $1,000 bonus. “I have received many thrills from racing in many countries, but I’ll never forget the thrill of winning those two runnings of the Derby in succession,” Winkfield said in a Louisville Defender interview quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
At a Glance…
Born on April 12, 1882, in Chilesburg, KY; died on March 23, 1974, Maisons-Lafitte, France; married Alexandra, 1900s (divorced); married Lydie de Minkwitz, 1922; children: (by Alexandra) one child; (by Lydie) Lifiane, Robert.
Career : Professional jockey late 1890s- 930; Wink field Racing Stables, Maisons-Lafitte, France, owner and operator, 1930s-1940, 1953-74; Works Progress Administration, construction worker, 1940s; Pimlico racetrack, Baltimore, MD. stable manager, 1940s-1953.
Awards : Won Kentucky Derby, 1901, 1902.
As the money involved in horse racing grew, however, black jockeys were squeezed out. Winkfield would be the last black jockey to win the Derby, and between 1921 and 2000 no black riders participated at all. Winkfield’s horse was crowded against a fence by white jockeys and injured in one incident, and Winkfield began to believe that the best horses were being reserved for whites. After placing second in the 1903 Derby, Winkfield decided to leave the United States for Europe. He had several reasons: a dispute with a top American breeder, frustration over the 1903 loss, and threats from the Ku Klux Klan all played a role. For a time Winkfield lived in Poland and trained horses owned by an American tycoon there.
Winkfield was hired as a jockey by an Armenian oil magnate, Michael Lazareff, in Russia in 1904, and that year he won major races in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia, and in Warsaw, Poland—Eastern Europe’s equivalent of American racing’s Triple Crown. He became something of a celebrity in Russia, earning a reported $100,000 a year, living in a hotel suite, breakfasting on caviar, and employing a valet. He married a Russian aristocrat named Alexandra. Winkfield eventually learned to speak six languages in addition to English: Russian, German, French, Italian, Polish, and Spanish. Blacks were a rarity in Eastern Europe, but Winkfield took onlookers’ curiosity in stride. “He told me that strangers would walk up to him and touch his skin to see if the color came off,” his granddaughter Lydia told the Houston Chronicle. “He was not offended. They were gentle and curious but always polite.”
Winkfield’s life of luxury came to an end with the Communist takeover of Russia in 1917; the Bolsheviks had no use for the whole sport of horse racing, which was primarily associated with the old aristocracy. First he fled to Odessa, in southern Russia, and then he and a Polish associate hatched a plan to preserve the lives of 200 prized horses by walking them over the border with Romania and thence to Poland—a distance of several hundred miles. Along the way they staged races to raise money, but they were hounded by suspicious villagers. “I remember my father said they had to keep their fingernails dirty, all of them, so they could show they were working people and not clean, elegant aristocrats,” Winkfield’s daughter Liliane told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
In the end, though 150 of the horses made it to the Polish capital of Warsaw, they were too weakened to race again and were all slaughtered for food within a year. Destitute once again, Winkfield made his way to Paris, France. He began racing again, and things soon turned around. Winkfield married Lydie de Minkwitz in Paris in 1922. They had two children, Liliane and Robert; eventually one grandchild, Amy, would become a veterinarian specializing in treating horses. By 1930, when Winkfield finally retired from the track with some 2,600 wins, he had accumulated enough money to build a racehorse stable of his own, with an attached three-story house, in the Paris suburb of Maisons-Lafitte.
The purple and blue of the Winkfield stables became a familiar sight on French racetracks in the 1930s, but the Nazi takeover of France disrupted Winkfield’s life yet again. He had already sent Liliane to the United States for an education (she eventually settled in Cincinnati), and in 1940 he and the rest of his family were evacuated to the United States by the Red Cross as conditions deteriorated in France under German military occupation. Winkfield, still an American citizen, was unknown in his home country by this time and faced its discriminatory policies. He became a construction worker with the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), blackening his hair with shoe polish to conceal the fact that he was nearly 60 years old. Later his life came full circle: he got a job working in a horse stable. For a time he was employed at Baltimore’s Pimlico racetrack.
Winkfield visited France in 1953 with the intention of selling his horse farm there, but he was persuaded to stay on by former associates. He lived there for the rest of his life, traveling to the United States occasionally for medical treatment and for family visits. On a 1961 trip to Louisville he was to be honored by horse racing writers at a downtown hotel but suffered one more indignity from American apartheid: he was barred from entering through the front door by a doorman. Jimmy Winkfield died in France on March 23, 1974, and was buried at Maisons-Lafitte. Still little known in his native country, he was featured in a 2003 exhibition at the Kentucky Derby Museum. Many observers wondered why he had not been admitted to the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame.
Hotaling, Edward, The Great Black Jockeys, Prima, 1999.
Houston Chronicle, May 2, 2002, p. Sports-1.
Jet, May 20, 2002, p. 51.
New York Times, April 28, 2002, section 8, p. 11.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 5, 2002, p. D15.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), May 20, 2001, p. C2.
“Jimmy Winkfield, a Horse Racing Legend!,” The African American Registry, www.aaregistry.com (October 7, 2003).
“The Museum Celebrates Jockey Jimmy Winkfield,” The Derby Museum, www.derbymuseum.org/news/wink03.html
—James M. Manheim
"Winkfield, Jimmy 1882–1974." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/winkfield-jimmy-1882-1974
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