The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby: The Story of Jimmy Winkfield

1:56 AM Posted by Lori Calabrese

The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby: The Story of Jimmy Winkfield

Author: Crystal Hubbard
Illustrator: Robert McGuire
Publisher: Lee & Low Books, September 2008
Reading Level: 4-8

I'm a firm believer that young readers see sports as fun, not as a history lesson to be learned. That's why I think books like The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby: The Story of Jimmy Winkfield are so important for young readers. Hubbard has created a fun sports book that shares the history of the first black horse racing jockey to win two Kentucky Derby's.

Born into an African American sharecropping family in 1880s Kentucky, Jimmy Winkfield grew up loving horses. The large, powerful animals inspired little Jimmy to think big. Looking beyond his family's farm, he longed for a life riding on action-packed racetracks around the world. At age 16 while working as a stable hand and exercise rider, Wink attracted notice from a horse trainer who asked him to race one of his horses in Illinois. Unfortunately Wink's first race resulted in a collision involving multiple horses and jockeys, and he was suspended from racing for a year. But that didn't stop Wink from pursuing his goal. Along the way he carved out a lasting legacy as one of history's finest horsemen and the last African American ever to win the Kentucky Derby.

Young readers will enjoy learning as I did that African-American jockeys dominated the early years of the Kentucky Derby. Thirteen of the 15 riders in the first Derby in 1875 were black, and blacks won 15 of the Derby's first 28 runnings. James Winkfield was the last black jockey to win the Derby, riding consecutive champions in 1901-02. By the early 1900s, the presence of black riders and trainers in the Derby began decreasing, largely because of resentment from the white racing community and the migration of blacks from Southern farms to Northern cities. Nowadays, there aren't many black exercise riders and supposedly, that's how many successful jockeys start.

I think this book stands out from the rest of African-American history books because one often thinks that when the first African-American breaks into something, it paves the way for others, but this was not the case in horse racing. By 1903, African American jockeys had become obsolete and Wink's 1902 victory would be the last Derby win ever by an African American jockey. The writing is superb, putting you right on the track in "the clouds of dirt and the spray of horse sweat." In the illustrations, you can feel the horses kicking up the dirt and the triumph when Wink wins the Derby! I can't say enough positive things about this book and highly recommend it, even if you're not a horse-racing fan.

Read an interview at Lee & Low Books with the author.
Learn about African Americans in the Derby.
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