Before the NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB, and NASCAR, the national sport in the United States was horse racing. At the turn of the last century, there were over 300 racetracks in the U.S., and over 500 million dollars was bet on horseracing by 1900.
If you were a small, black boy from Bluegrass country, horses and racing were your ticket out of town. In the case of celebrated jockey Jimmy Winfield, that ticket took him all the way to Poland, Russia, Austria, and finally France.
Jimmy was born in Kentucky in 1882, the last of his mother’s seventeen children. From an early age, he was fascinated by horses and racing. He worked his way up from groom, exercise rider to jockey.
This was a time when a talented black man could make a living in the horse community. There were several internationally known black jockeys, including super star Isaac Murphy. Jimmy was winning races on tracks in Kentucky, Louisiana, Illinois, and New York. In 1901 and 1902, he won the Kentucky Derby, one of only two jockeys to win in consecutive years. The other was Isaac Murphy.
It was the apex of Jimmy’s career in United States. By 1902, the racism at the racetrack and elsewhere was more overt. There were more “nigger” taunts, more restrictions. White owners and trainers were less willing to employ him, and white jockeys resorted to dirty tricks during races. By 1904, Jimmy, one of the top jockeys in the country, was having trouble finding a mount. Several top jockeys, both black and white, had migrated to Europe, so Jimmy sought overseas work as well.
POLAND, RUSSIA & AUSTRIA
In 1904, Jimmy traveled to Warsaw to work for General Michael Lazarev, an Armenian oil tycoon. Despite not speaking the language, Jimmy felt right at home among the diverse staff of Finns, Mongols, Slavs, Turks, and Poles.
Jimmy was hugely successful racing in Poland, Russia and Austria in the years leading up to WWI. He had an apartment in Moscow and a summer dacha in the countryside. He spoke fluent Polish and Russian. Divorced from his first wife, he married the daughter of a Russian military officer. Among other triumphs, he won the Moscow Derby in 1907 and 1908. His Russian nickname was “Black Maestro.”
Winkfield is a Negro, ethnically he has nothing to do with Russia, but he loves our country, especially Moscow, like his motherland. When he worked at V.E. Lubomirsky’s, [Austria] a trip to Russia was a holiday for him, and he always spent winters in Moscow.
Horse Breeding and Sports Journal
WORLD WAR I & THE REVOLUTION
But the political situation in Russia was dicey. Revolution was in the air, and the onset of WWI, a conflict that was irrelevant and unpopular with the peasants who did most of the fighting, exacerbated the situation. Czar Nicholas II abdicated in March 1917. A provisional government struggled to end the war and defeat the Bolsheviks.
By August 1917, it was too dangerous to continue horse racing in Moscow. Jimmy and a group of owners, jockeys, and officials moved the track to Odessa. Jimmy’s White Russian wife, Alexandra, and son chose to stay behind with her family in Moscow. (He didn’t see them again for ten years.)
AN AUDACIOUS PLAN
Eventually the revolution reached Odessa too. In April 1919, the leader of the expat horse community in Odessa, Frederick Jurjevich, hatched an audacious plan to evacuate 262 high-strung, expensive thoroughbreds and their handlers 1,100 miles through war-torn territories to Warsaw. Jimmy didn’t hesitate to join the group. It was a harrowing journey, but miraculously the caravan arrived in Warsaw three months later, very much the worse for wear, having lost only ten horses.
By 1921, Jimmy was riding in Paris thanks to an invitation from one of his former sponsors, another oil tycoon, bon vivant Leon Mantachev. The competition in Paris was stiff, and Jimmy at age forty was old for a jockey. He had a respectable run, but never made it back to the top spot.
Paris was awash in Russian refugees, and Jimmy ran into an old acquaintance from the Moscow racetrack, Lydie de Minkwitz, a shrewd horsewoman and the daughter of Baron Vladimir de Minkwitz. They married in 1922, and the Baron set his daughter and son-in-law up in a three-story stucco house adjacent to a twenty-nine-stall barn in “the city of the horse,” Maisons-Laffitte. Jimmy was a top trainer, a sometime jockey, and a full-time gentleman horseman. They had two children.
WORLD WAR II
In June 1940, the Nazi’s confiscated the Winkfield house and stables. As a U.S. citizen, Jimmy was allowed to immigrate to the U.S. with his wife and immediate family only. Reluctantly, he left behind his long-time mistress and their two children.
BACK IN THE U.S.
It had been almost forty years since Jimmy left the U.S. As a middle-aged black man, he was virtually unemployable, and the internationally renowned jockey took a job as stable boy. Lydie worked in a glove factory. In Jim Crow country, he and Lydie were careful never to be seen together, and entered their home separately. Along with their son Robert, an accomplished horseman, they start training. Just as she did in France, Lydie managed the finances and Jimmy the horses.
A shrewd bet on a seven-year-old gelding named Little Rocket financed their move back to France in 1953 where their beloved home was mostly intact.
RETURN TO FRANCE
Back in France, Jimmy and his son Robert (and later Robert’s wife) become prominent players in French racing. In his old age, Jimmy attempted to reconcile with his other three children with mixed results. (George, his son with Alexandra, died in 1935.)
Jimmy died in Maisons-Laffitte at ninety-one years of age.
It was indeed an epic life.
Black Maestro is a remarkable tale of how a gutsy, talented black man triumphed over incredible odds—time and time again– and a captivating tale of a bygone era at the racetrack.
WHAT OTHER REVIEWERS SAY
Nick Kotz, author of Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America: “Drape has given us a riveting, passionate portrayal of an unsung American hero. He has filled a large hole in our knowledge of horse racing history. And Drape has deeply probed the nation’s character—revealing the courage and tenacity which talented black Americans have needed to overcome persistent discrimination throughout the last hundred years.
WHO WROTE IT
Joe Drape is a reporter for the New York Times. He has won numerous national awards for news and sports writing, including the Eclipse Award for outstanding achievement in horse racing writing. He is the author of The Race for the Triple Crown. He lives in New York City.