The Great Racing Read: John Hammond

Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend

By Joe Drape

A fascinating story about Jimmy Winkfield, a black American jockey riding around 1900. He rode the winner of the Kentucky Derby twice before he was 20. At that time racing was the best attended sport in the US (hell, what happened?). It also had more skulduggery than today.

Run out of America by the Irish jocks who ganged up on him, he fled to Europe. First Poland, where he became champion jockey and learnt Polish, then Russia where he learnt Russian and became part of Russian high society and married a white Russian wife. Then came the Russian Revolution when he fled, initially to Crimea, from where he and a Polish cavalry officer walked a herd of the best Russian bloodstock to Poland to save them from the Bolsheviks. And then he walked to Paris, started training in Maisons-Laffitte and married another white Russian (many of them had fled to Paris).

Each time he 'got going' he has knocked down by a wave of history, and so it was again with World War II and the German invasion. The hero of the book flees back to America where, owing to segregation, he can't walk down the street with his white wife. After the war, he returns to Maisons-Laffitte, where he died.

In the early 1960s the American magazine Sports Illustrated honoured Winkfield with an award. He went back to Louisville to receive it, where the black guy on the door of Brown's Hotel, which was hosting the ceremony, wouldn't let him in.

An unbelievable but true story, and his personal life was colourful too.

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