Oliver Lewis (1856-1924), the African American jockey who rode the colt
Aristides, won the first Kentucky Derby on May 17, 1875. His time of two
minutes37.75 seconds set an American record over the mile and a half distance.
The winning thoroughbred was trained by renowned African American trainer Ansel
Williamson. Williamson was later inducted into the National Museum of Racing and
Hall of Fame in 1998. Lewis was born in Fayette County, Ky., in 1856. He was 19
years old in 1875 when he entered the inaugural Kentucky Derby. Very little is
known about Lewis’ life, but according to the Black Athlete Web site, Lewis was
“A family man, a husband and father of six children.” The race known as the “The
Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” was held on the newly-opened Louisville
Jockey Club racetrack, now known as Churchill Downs. Lewis won by two lengths in
front of an estimated crowd of 10,000 spectators and in a field of 15
three-year-old horses. In the late 1800’s, African Americans dominated racing,
winning 15 of the first 28 Derbies and training six of the first 17 winners. By
the early 1900’s, however, African Americans had been pushed out of the
business, which had also become wealthier and less accessible to the working
classes. It was not until 2000 that black jockeys reappeared in horse racing.
Lewis’ achievement in the opening year of what has become America’s
longest-running sporting event went almost unrecognized for over a century. He
rode Aristides to second place in the Belmont Stakes, which later became one of
the “Triple Crown” races, and won a total of three races at the Louisville
Jockey Club that season. Lewis never rode in another Kentucky Derby, but it is
known that he attended the 33rd race, in 1907. Despite his role in the history
of one of America’s most famous sporting events, Lewis has been neglected by
sportswriters for well over a century and his life beyond the famous race is
practically undocumented. Oliver Lewis died in 1924, in Lexington, Ky., and is
buried in the Lexington No. 2 Cemetery along with several other black jockeys of
the period, including Isaac Murphy, who won the Derby three times.
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