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Book Review

Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend
by Joe Drape
William Morrow, May 2006, 280 pages hardcover

Ask any racing fan who was the greatest American-born jockey ever, and you are likely to get a number of different answers. Bill Shoemaker, Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longden, or even the recently retired Jerry Bailey would be names that would come up more often than most. However, Jimmy Winkfield, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1901 and 1902, might well rise above them all. In his latest book, Black Maestro, award-winning New York Times writer Joe Drape tells the story of this extraordinary man and the struggles he went through to become one of the greatest horsemen in history.

Fifteen of the first 28 Kentucky Derbys were won by African-American jockeys, with Jimmy Winkfield's 1902 victory marking the end of an era in American racing. Since then, no black rider has won, and black trainers have all but disappeared from the sport. Coming from a family of sharecroppers in Kentucky, the young Winkfield experienced horses and racing right away. Having a natural skill with horses, he made his way to Latonia Racetrack to begin his career, grooming horses and working his way up to exercise rider and eventually jockey. He traveled around the country to get mounts, and often found himself caught in the middle of dangerous disputes that he had no control over, including the bloody war between mobsters for control of Chicago racetracks. This would serve as the theme for the rest of his life, as the reader soon learns.

Despite winning the Derby two straight years, racism reared its ugly head when he lost the 1903 running aboard the favorite Early. Suddenly his popularity dropped as trainers no longer gave him live mounts. Knowing that American riders were making inroads in Europe, he decided that was the only way to continue his career. He made his way to Czarist Russia, where he flourished as both a jockey and a trainer. His success made him a household name in Moscow, as the Russians treated him as their equal despite the color of his skin. All this came to an end with the Bolshevik Revolution and the start of the First World War. He had to flee into neighboring Romania, on to Poland, and ultimately to France, where he again set up his training operation, based out of Maisons-Laffitte.

When the Nazis invaded France and made their way towards Paris, once again Winkfield was forced to flee yet another adopted country. French racetracks and training centers were surrounded by barbed wire fencing, commissioned as barracks for the German army. His life finally came full circle, as he returned to America with his family to escape World War II. In 1961, he was invited back to the scene of his greatest triumphs, as a guest of Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby. Sadly, Winkfield apparently never forgave the American racing community for turning their back on him in 1903. He asked to be buried in France, with a plain gravestone with just the word "Moscow" in Russian, his salute to the city that truly appreciated him for who he was, one of the world's greatest horsemen, of any color.

Drape has written a most fitting tribute to one of racing's forgotten heroes. Winkfield had the same struggles as today's riders, including weight and serious injuries, but had to endure discrimination as well as the dangers of fleeing a war where, because of his loyalties, his capture would have meant death. This book is strongly recommended for fans of racing history as well as world history, as Winkfield's life story is so closely intertwined with that of war-torn Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Those studying the experience of African-Americans in history will learn a lot about how they were very successful horsemen despite mistreatment by horse owners and track management.

Black Maestro has a list price of $24.95 and is available for $15.72 from Amazon.com.

Rating:     5/5

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