Jockey Kevin Krigger talks about his Kentucky Derby mount, Goldencents, outside Barn 45 at Churchill Downs, Sunday, April 28, 2013, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Garry Jones)
Goldencents, Kevin Krigger up, races to win the Grade I $750,000 Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. (AP Photo/Benoit Photo, File)
by Zachary Lester
(NNPA)–Kevin Krigger always wanted to be a jockey.
He rode the arm of the sofa at his home when he was tiny, later graduating to a horse he was gifted by his grandmother. By the time he was a teenager, he had won his first race at the Randall James Racetrack in his hometown of St. Croix. His heart was set and his ambition clear: he wanted to join the ranks of the great Black jockeys who once dominated the sport of horse racing.
Krigger has realized his dream, racing in California and even taking the top spot April 6 at the Santa Anita Derby, the first Black jockey to win there since horse racing began there 78 years ago. On May 4, Krigger, 29, will be in the saddle steering Goldencents, a thoroughbred with a good shot at taking the title at the 139th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Goldencents landed in the No. 8 post and was made the 5-1 third choice for Saturday’s race. If he is successful, he will join the ranks of the great Black jockeys who once dominated horse racing.
Trainer Doug O’Neill, who won last year’s Derby with “I’ll Have Another”, is a friend of Krigger’s agent, Tom Knust, and was open to a suggestion of having the jockey swing by his barn last summer. So Krigger started working out Goldencents in the morning about six weeks before the colt’s racing debut.
“He got off him and in his best U.S. Virgin accent just said, ‘Wow, man, this horse can really run,’” O’Neill recalled. “I had Kevin and Tom starting planting the seeds to the owners of Goldencents, and they fell in love with him right away, too.”
And suddenly, the Derby rookie was the colt’s regular rider. They’ve won four of six races together, including the Santa Anita Derby, which I’ll Have Another won last year before heading to Churchill Downs.
“Of course, no matter how much you love a person they’ve got to have some chemistry with the horse,” O’Neill said, “and thank God, not only is he a great person, a great rider, but he’s got great chemistry with Goldencents.”
One of Goldencents’ owners is Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, who has a 5 percent share in the colt. Krigger had never watched a college basketball game start to finish until he saw the Cardinals beat Michigan for the national championship earlier this month.
“That made me a Louisville Cardinals fan,” he said.
The last time a Black jockey won the Kentucky Derby was 1902, when Jimmy Winkfield crossed the finish line first atop Alan-a-Dale; he also rode the winner in 1901. He would become only the second Black man to ride in the race since 1921. The first was Marlon St. Julien, who jockeyed Curule to a seventh-place finish in 2000. According to the Associated Press, Krigger keeps a picture of Winkfield in his locker.
The scarcity of Black jockeys in horse racing today contrasts sharply with the numbers who used to participate in the sport. In the first Kentucky Derby, run in 1875, 13 out of 15 of the jockeys were African American and 15 of the first 28 jockeys who won the derby were Black, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Many of the Black jockeys who rode in the contest in the early days also cared for the horses. Some were former slaves, according to historical accounts. But by 1903, business began drying up as white owners and trainers relied less and less on them.
Of some 1,000 jockeys aboard thoroughbreds in the U.S., only 50 are Black, according to the Jockey Guild.
“I think the reason is there aren’t many African-Americans interested in riding horses,” Krigger said. “And it’s really hard to get into the Kentucky Derby for any jockey, whether you’re African-American, Hispanic, White . . . it doesn’t matter what race or color you are. There are 20 horses. It’s not a race that is meant for everyone. Usually, only the top riders get in.”
“I would love to see maybe five years, 10 years from now, we have African-American riders in every (jockey) colony,” he said. “I’m proud of myself, that’s the main thing.”
For his part, Krigger has told reporters that he is anxious to win at Churchill Downs as a rider, not necessary as an African American.
Back in St. Croix, his success is stirring national pride, according to news accounts. A parade is scheduled to celebrate the participation of Krigger and (Victor Lebron, another jockey from the island, will ride Frac Daddy in the Derby.
Krigger, who is engaged and has four children, will be cheered on by dozens of loved ones on May 4 as he attempts to join the ranks of the greats who came before him.
“I’ve always thought of myself as the best rider in the world and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t,” he said. “Goldencents is the horse that is going to help me prove that.”
Special to the Afro-American.
The Associated Press (Beth Harris, AP Racing Writer) contributed to this report.