Before Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays. Before Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali. Before Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Jessie Owens, there were jockeys Isaac “Burns” Murphy, Oliver Lewis, and Jimmy Winkfield. Before baseball, basketball, and football were America’s favorite past times, horse racing was the sport of choice, and those African-American jockeys were this country’s first sports stars.
Enslaved jockeys were charged with working in the stables and tending to the horses. Plantation owners would often informally compete against each other, with the stable keepers racing the horses on their behalf. So naturally, when horse racing became an organized sport in the 1860’s, its first jockeys were of African descent.
Black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derbies and dominated the sport until they were forced out by white jockeys who threatened to void 1st place finishes by horses won with black jockeys and conspired to take their horses down by group force during races.
Not since 1902, when Jimmy Winkfield won back-to-back Kentucky Derbies, has a black jockey won the coveted Run For The Roses. This year, coming off a huge win at the Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park, 29 year-old Kevin Krigger is looking to rewrite history with top ten Derby favorite, Goldencents.
BSO had the pleasure of interviewing the St. Croix native as he prepares to make history.
How did you get into horse racing?
I’ve been racing horses pretty much all my life. I rode horses as a kid in the Virgin Islands, and was fortunate enough to meet the right people growing up that got me into racing them.
How important is a jockey to a horse?
Horse-racing isn’t horse-racing without a jockey and it isn’t horse racing without horses. It’s a 50/50 combination. The right combination of two brings success. Usually the trainers and the owners pair up to figure out who they feel fits their horse the best for whatever occasion or race they’re participating in.
How would you describe your riding style?
I would say my riding style is unorthodox. No matter what style of riding or the distance of the race, I fit it all. I can ride any horse.
What is a typical day for you?
The typical day starts about 5:30 in the morning. I get together with my agent and we go over to the track. I usually try to get there before 6 or at 6 o’clock. We start off with Doug O’Neill, who trains Goldencents, and we set our schedule as far as working and exercising horses, from there going from barn to barn, trainer to trainer, and sometimes track to track. My mornings vary depending on the schedules of the trainers and we work together to prepare the horse for upcoming races.
What is the best horse you’ve ever ridden?
Goldencents has taken that spot by far right now. We just won the San Anita Derby and he’s the horse I’ll be riding in the Kentucky Derby.
What was your most memorable race?
Goldencents has been with me for every top thing I’ve done career-wise, so since the beginning every race I’ve ridden with him has been a special race. His second race was my actual first race with him in Belmont, where we placed second. Then we came back after that race and won the Delta Jackpot, where I became the first African-American jockey to win a million-dollar race. He then won the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita Park…every race up till now is a very good race in my perspective and I remember everyone as clear as the other.
What’s your favorite track?
I would have to say Churchill Downs, because as I kid I always dreamed about racing there. My 1st meet there I had a really good race placing 5th or 6th in the standing and it’s the place where the Derby is, so it was important for me to go there and have a good meet. Now I’m looking forward to going back there with Goldencents.
How do you prepare for a big race like the Kentucky Derby?
Preparation for the Derby isn’t different than any other race. I mentally prepare myself for every race I want to ride in. I’ve studied and done years of research. This is something that I’ve prepared for every year of my career. I would’ve been prepared for this race 5 years ago.
What challenges have you faced during your career?
I wouldn’t say that it has been that difficult of a career because I kept myself in the hunt. I’ve worked hard and have been able to find trainers that believe in me. I’ve also had great agents, like my current one Tom Knust, who are really respected.
How many different horses have you raced?
I would have to look that up, but I’ve ridden over 900 winners. You’d probably have to multiply that a least 6 or 7 times to get the number of horses I’ve actually ridden.
With the rich history African-Americans have in horse racing, tell me about what you believe your impact will be.
Blacks are the minority in the sport, but as you can see I’m headed to the Kentucky Derby and it’s not because I’m a black jockey. I’m going there because of my ability and the person that I am. It’s who you are that gets you to this point. My personality, my work ethic, my riding ability, make me who I am. Making history as an African-American jockey means a lot, but I want to win the Derby because this is MY goal and it’s something that I really want to do. I know the African-American community would be proud of me if I win and I’d be proud of myself, but we wouldn’t have a black president if it weren’t for the white community and the black community. We should be at a point where the entire country looks past race. It’s what you do and the person you are that makes history.
Tell me an interesting fact about horse racing that the casual fan won’t know.
Before I started riding horses professionally I used to think jockeys rode horses as a hobby, but when I started racing horses I discovered it was a career. It’s something that you have to dedicate yourself to.
What sports other that racing do you enjoy watching or playing?
I’m not a huge sports fan, so I usually just watch the different championship games.
What do you do in your free time?
I have two children, so my spare time is usually spent resting and spending time with my family.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Growing up I used to hear people say that all jockeys are crooked, so I always wanted to be remembered as an honest, good jockey. When people speak of me in the future, I want them to say “Yeah, I remember Kevin Krigger. He was a GOOD rider.”
On May 4th Kevin Krigger will ride top-ten favorite, Goldencents in this year’s Kentucky Derby, excited about the opportunity to make history, but more excited about the opportunity of realizing his childhood dream.