Wink could have been America's greatest racing phenomenon, were it not for history. Two-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Jimmy Winkfield's life was a rollercoaster of fame and obscurity, enduring racism, world war, death threats, and exile. While life was high he attained celebrity, wealth, and true love, though his two greatest romances were with horses, and his exiled home, the United States. Wink's journey is an odyssey through history, tragedy, spunk, and old-fashioned American ingenuity.
Born in 1880 in Chilesburg, Kentucky, Jimmy Winkfield grew up around horse racing; his heroes were the great black jockeys of the 1890s. In Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield (McGraw-Hill; November, 2004; Hardcover, $22.95), author Ed Hotaling tells how the shoeshine boy became a stable hand, and progressed to exercising the horses. Finally, just sixteen, Wink got his chance to race. And race he did.
A Victiem of Racism:
He won back-to-back Kentucky Derbies in 1901 and 1902-one of only four jockeys ever to do so. Wink's Derby wins were also the high-water mark for black jockeys in America. At the turn of the century a combination of big money, violence by white jockeys, threats from the Ku Klux Klan, and racism forced the great black jockeys from U.S. racing. Jimmy Winkfield, out of options in his native America, bought a steamer ticket for Europe - where horse racing was still king and jockeys were celebrities.
A Sensation in Russia:
The rides began to dry up in Kentucky, too, thanks to Jim Crow, so he headed to Russia, where he took the drastic step of signing on as a stable jockey to Gen. Michael Lazarev, an Armenian oil magnate. Winkfield was 21, stood five feet tall and couldn't speak a word of Russian
Shortly after arriving, Wink won the All-Russian Derby and the Czar's Prize in Russia, then went on to win numerous other major purses in Europe. He became the dominant athlete in Czarist Russia's only national sport, winning its national riding championship an unheard-of three times. He became fabulously wealthy, married a Russian heiress, and lived large in Moscow. But the Russian Revolution of 1917 drove the entire aristocratic horse racing community south to Odessa on the Black Sea.
Escaping to Paris:
In 1918, even as the revolutionary army was moving into Odessa and burning down the racetrack, Wink and his fellow riders, trainers and owners drove 200 thoroughbreds across the Transylvanian Alps to Poland - a thousand-mile odyssey - eating horseflesh to survive. Amazingly, Wink made it to Poland and beyond, to Paris, where he shared the limelight with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Baker, and royalty from around the world.
World War Two:
By 1940 he was training horses on the grounds of his villa outside Paris. Unfortunately, history was to again intervene in Wink's life and livelihood. The Nazis were poised to occupy France. When German soldiers commandeered his property and confronted him at his own stables, Wink defended himself with a pitchfork. Once again, Wink was forced to flee in the face of historic catastrophe.
Finally Home Again:
After decades of exile, Wink returned to the United States in 1961 one last time, when he was invited, as a two-time winner, to a Kentucky Derby banquet. But when he and his daughter arrived at Louisville's historic Brown Hotel, they were told they couldn't use the front door; after a long delay they were let in, but everybody at the banquet ignored them. Except for an old competitor. A great white jockey named Roscoe Goose recognized Jimmy even though he hadn't seen him since their derby days sixty years earlier, came over, introduced himself, and sat down next to him. One of the last public photos of Jimmy, included in the book, was taken at the Kentucky Derby the following day. He was sitting next to his old rival Roscoe, both in suits and hats, smoking cigars, smiling and telling stories to incredulous reporters. Wink had outrun racism once again.
This is the wonderful, true, and nearly unbelievable story of a great athlete and a great man who proved, in at least ten countries, that he was one of the greatest jockeys ever. He died at his lovely home and training ground outside in Paris, at age 94, still homesick for the Kentucky bluegrass of his boyhood. (source: "Jimmy Winkfield" McGraw-Hill Press Release)
Read more about the "African American Jockeys in the Kentucky Derby" here.