Derby History: Ansel Williamson, The Former Slave Who Trained The First Kentucky Derby Winner

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.

Today, the Paulick Report continues our series on Black horsemen of Triple Crown racing history which we started before the Belmont Stakes with a profile on Edward Dudley Brown. If you missed it, you can access that piece here.

In a normal Kentucky Derby year, one of the most popular places for that perfect pre-race selfie is the Aristides statue which overlooks the paddock at Churchill Downs. Aristides is well-known in racing circles as the winner of the first Derby in 1875, but beyond this point of trivial pursuit many people don’t know much about him – including the role Black horsemen played in getting him to the post that day.

Of the 15 horses who went to the post that first Derby Day, 13 did so with Black jockeys, including the eventual winner. Aristides had Oliver Lewis aboard, who was legged up by a former slave named Ansel Williamson.

Williamson was born an enslaved person in Virginia around 1810. The earliest accounts of his career as a trainer don’t appear until the 1850s, by which time he was in Alabama, where he was enslaved as a trainer by T.G. Goldsby. It’s likely his experience with horses started well before age 40. Williamson’s specialty during this time was training horses for three-mile heats, including the nationally-known runner called Brown Dick.

Williamson was then sold to A. Keene Richards, for whom he trained Australian and Glycera. Richards, who was based in Kentucky, would become known as an influential breeder. Interestingly, Richards was perhaps best-known for importing a number of Arabian horses into the United States to reinvigorate what he saw as an inferior, weakened Thoroughbred which had strayed too far from its roots. The Thoroughbred of the time, in Richards’ view, lacked durability and stamina of days past (sound familiar?). Richards’ view of stamina was a minimum of a four-mile contest, which he judged the English Thoroughbred could not withstand without injury. The horses resulting from Richards’ breeding experiment would unfortunately become spoils of the Civil War, which broke out just after he imported and bred Arabian stallions to Thoroughbred mares.

By now, having developed a reputation for his horsemanship skills, Williamson was sold in 1864 to Robert Alexander, owner of Woodburn Farm. Alexander seems to have had a fondness for Williamson before this, naming a colt Ansel after him in 1856. While at Woodburn, Williamson trained Asteroid, who was one of the most successful racehorses of his day, undefeated in 12 starts and earner of $9,700 by the time of his retirement.

Of course, Williamson made the move to Woodburn in the thick of the Civil War, when both the Confederate and Union armies were constantly in search of horses. According to Katherine Mooney’s ‘Race Horse Men,’ Southern Thoroughbred owners were particularly nervous throughout this period, as horses were generally perceived as symbols of the Confederacy, making them attractive trophies for Union forces.

Writings from the period recall one nighttime raid on Woodburn by Confederate guerrilla Bill Quantrill, who rode with his men to the door and demanded horses. It seemed Quantrill was familiar with racing and with Woodburn, because he began requesting specific animals. Williamson negotiated with Quantrill in the dark and when the soldier requested Asteroid, quick-thinking Williamson was able to pull a young horse from a nearby stall who, under the cover of night, looked passable for Asteroid. Although Quantrill made off with 15 of Alexander’s runners, he didn’t get the stable’s biggest star.

What Williamson may have felt in those moments, or indeed his feelings on any part of his career, is mostly absent from available historical accounts, which was true for many of the period’s Black horsemen. There are small glimpses into the personalities of some, with jockeys more commonly being described in detail than trainers. In fact, their being noted at all was offensive to some turf devotees after their emancipation.

An artist’s depiction of Aristides

“Freedom was a daily series of tiny revolutions,” Mooney wrote in ‘Race Horse Men.’ “The world had fundamentally changed, as the Spirit of the Times impatiently reminded its readers, after the magazine received a few letters from racing enthusiasts uncomfortable with Black competitors. Their scruples were ridiculous, the Spirit scoffed. ‘Does any man with a pennyweight of brains think the less of Charles Littlefield or Gilpatrick because they ride against Abe or Albert or Alexander’s Dick?’ Between the rails of the racetrack, at least, Black men were to be the acknowledged equals of white ones.”

After the Civil War, this designation came in one small way to Williamson, who took his last name upon being granted his freedom. Many Black jockeys and trainers, like those noted in the quote from the Spirit of the Times, were identified only by their first name, but the Spirit printed Williamson’s full name along with his horse’s entries, just as it did for white trainers.

One account recalls a Spirit reporter rushing over to Abe Hawkins, the most famous of the very first well-known Black jockeys, to shake his hand in the crowd at the Jersey Derby. It seemed that by the end of the war, those who knew horses respected the immense talent of Black horsemen, even if they couldn’t see them as equal people.

Williamson worked for Alexander after emancipation, and later went to train for H.P. McGrath of McGranthiana Farm. Williamson wasn’t the only former Alexander employee who ended up at McGranthiana – Edward Dudley Brown, eventual trainer of Ben Brush and Plaudit, also worked there. It was common then, as it is now, for trainers and riders to mentor each other, and it seems Williamson nurtured Brown’s early career as a rider. Brown began as a jockey before he was a trainer, and presumably his association with Williamson continued to benefit him when he transitioned to training. Brown mentored William Walker, the Black jockey who rode Baden Baden to victory in the Derby when he was still a teenager.

“In freedom, older men could pass on their skills to younger ones and hope to see privilege and experience accrue increasing rewards over the generations,” wrote Mooney. “Free men could afford to think of themselves as friends, colleagues, and mentors, as members of a group governed by more than individual interest.

“Williamson and others with insider knowledge also tried to take care of Black horsemen outside their immediate circle. Black men laid their money down at the betting windows with assurance, because they had inside information that had come from African American trainers and jockeys.”

When Williamson brought Aristides to the post at Churchill (then called the Louisville Jockey Club), the horse was not expected to win. Aristides had been entered as a pacesetter for McGrath’s other runner, Chesapeake. He was small, and he was a front-runner in what was then a 1 ½-mile race.

Lewis took Aristides to the lead as he’d been instructed by McGrath, maintaining good position and a little surprised that after half a mile he’d had no challengers. Chesapeake, who had broken poorly, was no threat. Legend has it Lewis could be seen looking around, somehow spotting McGrath in a crowd reported to number 10,000, and hearing McGrath call out “Go on!” Lewis slipped the reins and on Aristides went, down the stretch and into history.

Williamson’s name appears in relatively few modern books on Derby history outside of a passing mention in a table of past winners. In one, it’s misspelled as Ansel Williams in both the index and his single mention in the entirety of the main text – an insult if ever there was one. Most racing historians would say however that his legacy wasn’t really Aristides so much as the superstar Asteroid, who made his name known far and wide, to people he’d never met. His mark on the sport also includes Tom Bowling, Merrill, Virgil, Aaron Pennington, Susan Ann and yes, — Chesapeake. As a trainer, he won the Belmont, Travers, Jerome, Phoenix, and the Withers.

Williamson was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1998.

The post Derby History: Ansel Williamson, The Former Slave Who Trained The First Kentucky Derby Winner appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

DYFD Winter - 300x90

Comments are closed.