And now for something completely different! I went with horse racing as the sport for this month’s theme. Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend by Joe Drape is a biography of Black jockey Jimmy Winkfield (1882 – 1974), winner of the Kentucky Derby in both 1901 and 1902, the last Black jockey to do so and one of very few who managed it back-to-back.
Winkfield was the youngest of seventeen children; his father had been freed from slavery via joining the Union army during the American Civil War. His parents both worked to support their family in Kentucky, his father a sharecropper and seasonal worker and his mother taking care of the children, which would have been the equivalent of several full-time jobs. Winkfield loved horses and learned the business by hanging around nearby stables; at the time, Black horsemen were considered to have a special skill with the animals and found it relatively easy to find work. This didn’t last.
When Black jockies, many of them very successful, were being pushed out of the sport by Jim Crow laws, Winkfield traveled overseas to work. He went on to have successful careers in Russia and, after the Russian Revolution, in France, where he became a trainer until expelled by the Nazis, who confiscated his horses. He made and lost several fortunes; he loved a number of different women, marrying three of them, and having several children. His eldest son with his Russian wife Alexandra, George, was also a jockey, but died from tubercular meningitis at twenty-four. Winkfield himself passed away in France in 1974, and is buried there.
Black Maestro was informative about the subject and the surrounding history. I particularly enjoyed the section about horse racing in Poland and Russia, as that history was completely unfamiliar to me. The author researched extensively, using translators when necessary, and interviewed Winkfield’s surviving children. The author’s note and bibliography are an interesting window into all the different angles from which Drape researched.
Now for two birds with one stone! The second biography of Winkfield, also from my TBR, is Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield by Ed Hotaling. It’s more journalistic in tone, and with a few additional photos not seen in the Drape biography. Though I’d found Drape’s prose a little dry, I ended up preferring it to Hotaling’s; however, Hotaling’s sometimes anecdotal approach was an enjoyable read as well. Hotaling’s research also included interviewing surviving family members.
Here’s a brief documentary I found on YouTube: