The First Kentucky Derby: Thirteen Black Jockeys, One Shady Owner, and the Little Red Horse That Wasn’t Supposed To Win

Eclipse. May 2023. 288p. ISBN 9781493073344. $28.95. SPORTS
The Kentucky Derby ranks as one of the most well-known Thoroughbred racing events in the U.S. Less evident from the makeup of the contemporary derby, or horse racing in general, is that the race’s early years were dominated by Black riders and trainers. Shrager (Diane Crump: A Horse-Racing Pioneer’s Life in the Saddle) explains that he set out to write a straightforward history of the Kentucky Derby’s origins, but the story about its first winner, Aristides, and his Black jockey and Black trainer, Oliver Lewis and Ansel Williamson respectively, compelled him to build the book around them. The book begins by tracing the path that led to the first Kentucky Derby and the birth of its equally famous location, Churchill Downs. From there, this work jumps off into multiple storylines that weave and interconnect around the early years, starting in 1875, of this sporting event’s existence. There are engaging portrayals of the lives and careers of Aristides, Lewis, Williamson, and a number of other Black riders and trainers who reached the winner’s circle once or multiple times.
VERDICT Eye-opening reading for horse racing fans. Will also likely appeal to readers interested in sports history in post–Civil War America.
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