Kevin Krigger's first-ever mount, as the legend is told, came at the tender age of 5 when he surreptitiously bolted from a backdoor in his family's home in St. Croix, bounded onto a horse owned by one of his neighbors and took off down the street.
It didn't take long for Krigger, the jockey of Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents, to teach himself at a young age to mount a bareback horse by jumping off the roof of his parents' car. Near his 10th birthday, Krigger's grandmother bought him his first horse, a foal he used to win nearly 100 match races against his rivals in their mid-to-late teens on the sandy beaches of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
By then, the headstrong rider already had a singular goal cemented in his mind: It was "not I'm going to be the first African-American to win the Kentucky Derby in 100-something years. It was just, 'I'm going to win the Kentucky Derby,'" Krigger told reporters this week.
On Saturday, Krigger can make history by becoming the first African-American to win the Run for the Roses since Jimmy Winkfield captured the historic race in consecutive years in 1901 and 1902. Krigger, 29, is the first African-American jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby since 2000 and just the third to be entered in the first leg of the Triple Crown since 1920. As Krigger has prepared the son of Into Mischief for the 139th renewal of the Derby this week, he has taped a photo of Winkfield to his locker at Churchill Downs for motivation.
"The look in his eyes," Krigger told the Associated Press, "was telling me, 'You're going to do it.'"
In 1903, Winkfield nearly became the first and only jockey to win the Derby in three consecutive years, when his fortunes turned. While the young jockey reportedly became blacklisted for failing to honor a riding contract with an owner, mounts for African-American riders increasingly leveled off as Jim Crow laws proliferated in the segregated south.
Winkfield, then just 21, emigrated to Russia where he won a host of prominent races such as the Czar's Prize, the Moscow Derby and the Russian Oaks. Forced out of the country in 1917 during the Russian Revolution, Winkfield joined a contingent of fellow jockeys, trainers and owners on a trek into Poland. Eventually settling in France, Winkfield rode into his early '50s before he was uprooted again during the German occupation in World War II.
Winkfield was one of several famous African-American jockeys to have their American riding careers cut short by the discriminatory policies of the era. From 1884 until 1898, Isaac Murphy and Willie Simms combined to win the Derby five times before southern legislatures began to enforce the laws on a larger scale at the turn of the century. While 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derbies were won by African-American riders, only a handful of jockeys have competed since Winkfield's victory. Winkfield was inducted posthumously into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2004, earning a spot in the hallowed grounds in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., alongside Murphy and Simms.
Krigger could be on his way of joining the elite group if he is victorious aboard Goldencents on Saturday. In 2001, Krigger's career in the United States began auspiciously when he won 50 races at Thistledown Racetrack in Ohio and three more at West Virginia's Mountaineer Racetrack in a span of several months. He then moved west, where he captured 12 races in a three-week period at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California. At 18, Krigger caught the eye of trainers with his patience and reluctance to resort to the whip unless vitally necessary.
Under sharp fractions in the Santa Anita Derby (22.72 in the quarter-mile and 46.48 in the half), Krigger kept Goldencents just off the lead, before overtaking Super Ninety Nine around the final turn. After a brief duel with Flashback at the top of the stretch, Goldencents held off the Bob Baffert-trained horse to win by 1 1/4 lengths.
Goldencents trainer Doug O'Neill, who won the Kentucky Derby last year with I'll Have Another, has lauded the unheralded jockey for his ability to stalk the pace.
"We've been doing a lot in the mornings with the horse, but a lot of it has been in Kevin's hands," O'Neill said.
With the victory, Goldencents has won $1.25 million in six career starts. Last June, Goldencents was purchased by O'Neill's brother Dennis for $62,000 at the 2012 Oscala Breeders Company Sales auction. Louisville basketball coach
Goldencents is the third-choice on the morning line at 5-1. Orb, the winner of the Florida Derby and the Fountain of Youth, is the favorite at 7-2. Verrazano, the second-choice at 4-1, is undefeated in four career starts. It could also be a historic afternoon for Rosie Napravnik, a 25-year old jockey, aboard Mylute (15-1). Napravnik is bidding to become the first female jockey to win the Derby.
Keep your eye on horse racing by following Matt Rybaltowski on Twitter@mattrybaltowski.