Belmont History: Edward Brown Went From Slave To Jockey To Trainer To Owner In A Lifetime

Our readers here at the Paulick Report seem to love a good lookback at horse racing history. In considering the best subjects for our 2020 Triple Crown coverage, this seemed like a good time to make note of the crucial role black horsemen have played in the early days of our sport, and in this series of races. Many of the sport’s most revered heroes around the turn of the 20th century were ridden, cared for, trained, and sometimes owned by black horsemen whose equine expertise sometimes stretched back generations. While some, like jockeys Jimmy Winkfield and Isaac Murphy, have been the subjects of well-researched biographies in recent years, others may be less known to racing fans. It is clear that their contributions played an essential role in the lives of horses that became influential in American Thoroughbred history and bloodlines.

Ahead of each of this year’s Triple Crown races, we plan to release a profile on a black horseman from racing history whose story may be unfamiliar to you.

Edward Dudley Brown was a man of many names in his 56 years, and also stood behind many of the biggest names in horse racing following the Civil War.

Brown began his life as a slave, born in 1850 in Fayette County, Ky., and was sold at the age of seven along with his cousin to Robert A. Alexander of Woodburn Stud in neighboring Woodford County. The details on the early part of Brown’s life are scant, other than he demonstrated an interest in fast horses not long after his arrival to Woodburn and learned to ride, probably at around the time political tensions in the United States were reaching a boiling point.

Brown’s interest in racehorses was probably not considered out of place for a young slave at the time. Horse racing had evolved in this country as a sporting outlet for wealthy landowners. Horses were a common part of daily life in the 1700s and 1800s of course, so it was natural that one farmer should suggest to another that he had the fastest horse in either of their barns. Eventually, the most enthusiastic race fans imported English Thoroughbreds and began breeding horses specifically to race.

Since those who could afford ‘blooded’ horses were often gentlemen farmers, they typically knew how to ride and knew the basics of how a barn should run, but that didn’t mean they wanted to do the work themselves. Prior to the Civil War, this meant the task of not just grooming but also riding and training often fell to slaves.

In her book ‘Race Horse Men,’ writer Katherine Mooney notes that when African slaves were brought to this country, they brought with them generational knowledge of horses. North Africans and Middle Easterners brought horses and horsemen to West Africa, and the region became known for its equestrianism. For some Africans brought to the colonies in slavery, horses may have been a part of their background since the Mali Empire (which existed from the early 1200s to mid-1600s).

This left those slaves in charge of racing barns in a tricky position – they were respected for their superior expertise, but still classified as inferior beings behind whites. They had some physical freedom to travel and to manage other slaves underneath them, but were by no means free. They helped their owners win purse money and wagers placed alongside the race route, but were not paid themselves. They were heralded for their skills in the saddle, but could be (and were) threatened with lynching if they were judged not to have put in their best effort.

Mooney writes that white horsemen grew to rely on the black horsemen who ran their barns, working closely alongside them, developing a strangely dichotomous relationship.

“Examining the confined world of the track, we can unpick those knots and see that white turfmen were often strikingly sincere in the ties they professed with black horsemen, with these particular privileged slaves,” she writes. “But as clear as their sincerity is their complete inability to see black horsemen as full human beings. They recognized these black men as competent professionals and often as congenial companions. But they only saw black horsemen in relation to themselves; they could hardly imagine them with lives and feelings in which white interests played no part. This view of human beings as useful instruments was smotheringly all-encompassing, far deeper than any individual affection or sentimentality, malice or hypocrisy.”

It was into this strange dynamic that Brown rose to power, or as much power as he was allowed by the color of his skin.

It quickly became clear that he was a skilled rider, and also talented as a foot racer. Brown would sometimes gallop a horse named Brown Dick, who was best known for setting a record in 1856 for three-mile heats. Legend has it that Brown was so quick on two feet that people compared him to the well-known Thoroughbred and began calling him by the same name. The nickname stuck, so much so that at his death, a number of industry publications referred to him as “Brown Dick” – which had to be puzzling for fans of the equine Brown Dick.

It seems to have been tradition in those days to refer to slaves by their first names only, making it somewhat challenging for researchers to trace an enslaved jockey’s career. Further confusing the matter, Brown was often referred to simply as “Dick,” rather than “Ed” or “Edward.” Slaves were sometimes specified by their owner’s name, so he occasionally appears in written record as “Alexander’s Dick” and we are left to assume Robert A. Alexander had no other riders by the same first name. Regardless, Brown quickly caught Alexander’s attention and was assigned to ride his first race aboard Woodburn’s Asteroid, one of the best sons of the great Lexington, when Brown was just 14. The pair won races in St. Louis and a $750 stakes at Woodlawn in Louisville, and a couple of walkover heats.

It was not long after that first race the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, releasing Brown and thousands of others into a society that had largely not contemplated a place for them. Brown did have a sense for his place in the world thanks to racing, and continued working for Alexander, riding Asteroid and Maiden (dam of Hall of Famer Parole) and others until Alexander’s death in 1867. Daniel Swigert, longtime farm manager at Woodburn, would leave two years later to launch Stockwood Stud, and Brown followed him. (Swigert would eventually be the great-grandfather of Spendthrift’s Leslie Combs II and owned Elmendorf Farm, the precursor to Spendthrift.)

An 1864 painting by Edward Troye depicts Asteroid with his trainer Ansel Williamson (R), unidentified groom, and his jockey Edward Brown (L, kneeling).

Riding for Stockwood, Brown piloted stakes winners Virgil, Edinburgh, Blind Tom, and others. He entered the Triple Crown history books for the first time aboard Kingfisher, who he rode to victory in the 1870 Belmont Stakes, then held at 1 5/8 miles at Jerome Park.

Now in his twenties, Brown became too heavy to be a flat jockey and rode steeplechasers with some success for a couple of years before becoming a trainer for Swigert. His first success was with stakes winner King Alfonso (who would go on to sire winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont), followed by Bombay and Baden-Baden.

Swigert was in the habit of selling horses at the end of their juvenile seasons if they showed some promise on the racetrack, which often took the best horses out of Brown’s barn before their strengths were fully realized. This was the case with Spendthrift, who Swigert sold for $15,000 as a 2-year-old before he won the 1879 Belmont and became the great-grandsire of Man o’ War. Hindoo was also sold off by Swigert after showing success at two, and went on to win the Kentucky Derby.

In the case of Baden-Baden though, Brown got to have at least some of the glory. He saddled the son of Australian (GB) in the third Kentucky Derby, where he prevailed by two lengths. Soon after the race, Swigert sold Baden-Baden to William Astor for $12,000.

Brown eventually moved on to work for Col. Milton Young (who at one time kept his racehorses at McGranthiana, later renamed Maine Chance), bringing the Young stable to the fifth-leading owner in the country in 1881. He would also condition horses for R.C. Pate, Col. James E. Pepper, and W.S. Barnes (the latter two often racing in partnership as Melbourne Stable). He nearly won the Derby again in 1886, as trainer of Blue Wing but was edged out a nose by Ben Ali.

All the while, Brown was putting his money away. He was described, in the few news clippings which bothered to describe him, as a quiet person not given to gambling or other habits that necessitated big spending. He was happy to give a tip to friends and reporters when he felt good about one of his horses, but seemed uninterested in risk himself.

“You see one side of Brown Dick’s character when questions of fact are disputed before the judges and men accept his word as weightier evidence than the affidavits of many men,” wrote the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Another side you see when a party of ladies and children visit the stables. Brown Dick is never happier than when his hat is doffed, he is leading them from stall to stall and answering their absurd questions, with gentleman courtliness worthy of a wigged and ruffled cavalier.”

Often painted as a somewhat hunched man, slowed by arthritis, often sporting a trademark blue and white coat flapping in the breeze by the rail, Brown was already known as a fixture on the racetracks in Central Kentucky. When he had saved up enough money, Brown made the transition that churns the stomach of any trainer – he decided to buy and train his own stock.

Brown zeroed in on Swigert’s strategy of buying stock and selling them just as their careers were heating up. He paid $4,500 for Plaudit as a yearling and would sell him to John E. Madden for $6,500 after the horse built up a juvenile resume. Plaudit would become a Kentucky Derby winner and key stallion for Hamburg Place. Brown’s greatest success however, was a yearling he picked out at the Runnymede Farm yearling sale in 1894 named Ben Brush.

Brown went in on the $1,200 yearling with trainer Eugene Leigh, as the two evidently agreed this made more sense than bidding against each other. Strangely, little seems to have been written about the partnership, which was somewhat unconventional for the time since Leigh was white.

By all accounts, Brown lost his heart to Ben Brush. One turfwriter depicts him outside his training barn one afternoon, carefully overseeing the horse’s grazing with a combination of fondness and nerves familiar to any trainer who knows they have something special.

“He’s my kind of horse,” Brown told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “I like these steady-headed, sensible colts. You know I don’t bet, but don’t forget little Ben when he starts. He’s one of the best I ever handled.”

Brown and Leigh turned down several cash offers for Ben Brush but eventually yielded to a sum reported between $12,000 and $18,000 (between $310,000 and $466,000 today) after his first five starts as a juvenile. Ben Brush would also win the Kentucky Derby but really left his mark as a sire – he was leading sire of 1909 and is still prevalent in the far reaches of many modern champions’ pedigrees.

At the turn of the century, Brown began struggling with tuberculosis and rheumatism. He was thought to have saved some $100,000 from his career on the racetrack, making him one of the wealthier black Americans of his time according to some newspaper reports. Brown died in 1906 at a fellow trainer’s home in Louisville. Obituaries describe him as struggling with his health for several of his last years and noted that he was penniless at the time of his death, though it’s unclear what happened to his fortune. A fund was started on the backstretch to help pay for his funeral, and at least one of his biggest competitors – a white owner named Ed Corrigan – was one the first contributors.

Brown was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1984. In 1999, a plaque was placed in Midway, Ky., where Brown was buried, to commemorate his accomplishments. Then-Gov. Brereton Jones was on hand for the dedication, which was covered by the Lexington Herald-Leader.

“Jones said that the racing industry didn’t feel Brown’s effect until years later, but that his voice is heard today,” wrote Travis Mayo. “’He speaks very loudly and clearly that this is the Thoroughbred capitol of the world and that anybody who is willing to work can be a success,’ Jones said. ‘Because if a black man in the midst of slavery can succeed at it, surely the rest of us as free people, who are inhibited only by our own lack of vision or lack of fortitude, can succeed.’”

The post Belmont History: Edward Brown Went From Slave To Jockey To Trainer To Owner In A Lifetime appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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