Preakness History: Simms Made History And Changed The Way Jockeys Ride

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, we conclude our series on Black horsemen of Triple Crown history. You can access our Derby profile of Ansel Williamson here and our Belmont profile of Edward Dudley Brown here. 

If you’ve ever looked at an oil painting depicting a racing scene from the 1800s, you’ve probably noticed that the riders don’t look much like modern jockeys. They seem taller, with legs hanging down the sides of their horses and may be depicted leaning forward slightly or sitting straight up as though they are gentlemen out for a forward canter behind foxhounds.

Many historians have credited Tod Sloan with popularizing the modern riding position, in which a jockey takes short stirrups and crouches low over the horse’s withers, but one of America’s early Black jockeys also had an influence in changing the way horses are ridden in races.

Willie Simms was part of the second wave of Black horsemen after the end of slavery, and he was given a leg up by men who had started their lives and racing careers in slavery. Born in 1870 outside Augusta, Ga., Simms was initially said to be attracted to racing because at a young age he was fascinated by the rainbow of brightly-colored silks that whipped around racecourses. He first began riding races at 17 and burst onto national racing scene at the age of 21 when he won the 1891 Spinaway aboard Promenade and went on to become the fifth-leading jockey in the nation.

His talent was quickly recognized and he was given a $10,500 retainer by owner Pierre Lorillard – a fee bigger than that of white competitors at the time. Besides Lorillard, his list of clients included every major stable owner of the age, highlighted by John E. Madden, James R. Keene, and August Belmont. He picked up steam rapidly in the early 1890s, winning the Belmont Stakes in back-to-back years with Commanche and Henry of Navarre and the Kentucky Derby in 1896 with Ben Brush, the favorite horse originally owned and trained by Edward Dudley Brown. (Brown sold Ben Brush before the Derby, but the horse was the centerpiece in his career, which included time as a rider, a trainer, and an owner.)

Simms is also the only Black jockey ever to have won the Preakness, which he did in 1898 with Sly Fox. As such, he’s also the only Black rider to have won the three races now recognized as the Triple Crown, although not in the same year.

For the first 11 years of the publication of Goodwin’s annual turf guide, the leading rider spot was a Black jockey five times, with Simms picking up the title in 1893 and 1894.

Due in part to his overwhelming success in the States, Sloan talked Simms into taking his tack to England. Historical accounts depict Sloan, who was white, as having a complicated relationship with race, openly using racial slurs to and about his Black valet but kicking back for a beer with Simms after the races.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Black riders were much less common in England at the time than they were in the States, and Simms’ welcome wasn’t an entirely pleasant one. The crowd gawked at him as he went to the post, and the press sniffed disapproval at his presence on the course. Once they got a look at the way he rode, their disapproval deepened to horror.

It seems unlikely that Simms was the first or the only race rider to shorten his stirrups and crouch over his horses. Sloan was already doing it back in the States, and before him, top jockeys Abe Hawkins and Gilbert Patrick (“Gilpatrick”) probably also hovered over their horses from time to time. Originally, the style actually came from races between the precursors to Quarter Horses in colonial times or even from certain Native American riding styles, according to writer Edward Hotaling in “The Great Black Jockeys.”

It was a logical move – the rider’s weight would be distributed across the top of the saddle through the stirrup leathers, rather than a dead weight over the center of the horse’s back, and a crouch allowed the rider to be more aerodynamic and balance more securely. These arguments were immaterial to the very traditional British racing scene at the time. The low, squat way a rider with “the American seat” balanced on a horse drew people to liken Simms to a monkey balancing on a stick (though it’s unclear how much of the comparison was related to racism and how much was a commentary on his equitation). Even upon his death, that’s the descriptor reporters would harken back to.

If his reception troubled him, you wouldn’t know it from Simms’ performance – he became the first American rider (of any color) to win a race in England aboard an American horse for American connections. Despite the accomplishment, he didn’t pick up as many mounts in England as he could in America, so he came back to the States, where he was edged out for that year’s riding title by fellow Black jockey “Soup” Perkins.

Jockey Willie Simms (at center)

When Sloan brought the same technique to England a couple of years later, it was met with disapproval but ultimately grudging acceptance, given Sloan’s success – and, possibly, the fact he was a more acceptable color to the audience.

Simms’ victories on the track paid him well – by one estimate, he’s thought to have raked in $20,000 a year at the height of his career (over $600,000 in today’s money). He had no family and invested his winnings well, buying real estate wherever he could. He purchased an estate in his hometown of Augusta with a gymnasium, riding stable, and a six-horse carriage. He wasn’t alone in his arrival to wealth thanks to riding races – his generation of riders in particular, who had been born after the end of slavery and able to keep their own winnings from the beginning, inspired not just adoration from fans of the turf but upward mobility. Not everyone liked that.

Turfwriter Hugh Keough was open about his hostility and discomfort with the rise of Black jockeys in the sport.

“The praise that was bestowed upon the colored jockeys for their skill was accepted as a compliment to the entire race, and the porter that made up your berth took his share of it and assumed a perkiness that got on your nerves,” he wrote.

“Since jobs as Pullman porters were highly valued and often depended upon the ability to assume a posture of servility for the delectation of any white ticketholder, it seems highly unlikely that Keough actually saw real evidence that railroad porters’ behavior changed depending on the performances of Black horsemen,” opined Katherine Mooney of Keough’s assertion in her book ‘Race Horse Men’. “But Keough believed that he saw it, because he was afraid that he might. And that was all that mattered.”

As time went on, white discomfort with Black success in racing grew. While fans of the sport might be in awe of a jockey’s magical abilities with a horse, they were also threatened by this shift in the power balance – not just that Black riders could beat white riders on the turf, but that they could accumulate wealth, be proud of their accomplishments, and [potentially] use that success to push back against Jim Crow laws that kept things very much separate and unequal. White riders began targeting Black jockeys in races with dangerous crowding, boxing in, and other tactics they hoped would make their rivals give up, pull up, or be injured or killed. (To say nothing of the risk to their horses.) They began warning owners not to hire Black riders – a combination, perhaps, of racism and a desire to eliminate fearsome competitors.

Of course, this would later spill over into licensing decisions. Gradually, commissions stopped granting licenses to Black jockeys until they slowly disappeared from the starting gate.

As for Simms, he was reported to have retired around 1903 due to weight struggles. In 1907, the man once ranked as the top jockey in the country was barred from racetracks after he allegedly provided a counterfeit ticket when trying to attend the races at Gravesend. According to a report from The Brooklyn Citizen, Simms had supposedly lost his fortune to gambling by then and was attending the races as a tout. When racing officials learned of this, they revoked his complimentary entry badge he had previously held. Simms denied the story. He died of pneumonia in 1927 – by which time Black jockeys were a rarity, according to one report of his career published shortly after his death.

Simms was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1977. He remains the only Black rider to have won all three Triple Crown races.

Thanks to the Keeneland Library and the International Museum of the Horse’s Chronicle of African Americans In The Horse Industry project for their assistance in research for this series.

The post Preakness History: Simms Made History And Changed The Way Jockeys Ride appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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