Back In The Winner's Circle

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jockey jimmy wickfield
CBS

In the rich history of horse racing, the story of a remarkable man is being remembered.

Jimmy Winkfield, an African-American man of five-feet and 105 pounds, was a giant in the world of horse racing.

"He was brilliant, with an unbelievable determination to win at almost any cost," Winkfield biographer Ed Hotaling tells CBS News Correspondent Troy Roberts.

The 17th child of a sharecropper, Winkfield won back-to-back Kentucky Derbies in 1901 and 1902 - the last black jockey to do so.

Hotaling rediscovered Wink's story buried deep in racing records.

"He was almost better at everything," Hotaling said.

Around the turn of the century, African-American jockeys were among the sport's brightest stars. But as racing grew more popular and lucrative, racism effectively ended their careers.

"They were not only ridden off the tracks in fights with white jockeys, they were written out of the sport by historians," Hotaling said. Winkfield left for Russia.

"Within a year he was the top rider in Russia," Hotaling said. "He made $100,000 a year and these are pre-World War I dollars."

That all ended with the Bolshevik Revolution. Winkfield escaped to France, where he again managed to resurrect his career. Until the Nazi invasion forced him into exile once more.

Why didn't he go back home?

"To do what? Muck out stables?," Hotaling asked. "To be insulted in the streets?"

But finally, a nearly destitute Winkfield did go back to America.

No one in New York racing circles was willing to give him a job. The man who had once dominated the sport couldn't even get hired as a stable hand.

In 2005, reports Roberts, there are still only a handful of African-American jockeys.

"It's difficult because there are a lot of people who won't give you the chance to ride a good horse, or even a bad horse, because of the color of your skin," Noel Wynter, an African-American jockey, told CBS News.

His most prominent predecessor was back in the winner's circle on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, as the racing world paid tribute to Winkfield with the inaugural running of the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York City.

Winkfield's daughter, Lillian Winkfield Casey, and granddaughter, Yvonne Cooper, flew in from Ohio for the big race.

"Better late than never," Casey told the New York Racing Association of the honor conferred on her father, adding: "I bet on the winner."