Winkby Ed Hotaling
Forced from American horse racing in 1903 by racism and hard times, two-time Kentucky Derby winner Jimmy Winkfield won every major European race and earned two dazzling fortunes -- only to lose one in the Bolshevik Revolution and another in the Nazi invasion of France. In this captivating biography, historian Ed Hotaling traces Wink's extraordinary odyssey from shoeshine boy through the epochal events of the 20th century.
- McGraw-Hill Companies, The
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THE INCREDIBLE LIFE AND EPIC JOURNEY OF JIMMY WINKFIELD
By ED HOTALING
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2005Ed Hotaling
All rights reserved.
Jimmy Winkfield never forgot the sunlit spot where he was born on an old back road in Kentucky, eight miles east of Lexington. Richard Chiles, a farmer from Virginia, kept a stagecoach tavern there for some forty years before the Civil War, so they called it Chilesburg. When Chiles died in 1853, another white man, Sam Uttinger, bought the property and sold a lot with a farmhouse to a free black couple named George and Victoria Winkfield.
George's father was white, and the Winkfield surname originated with an old family and its field, Winecas Field, in Berkshire County, England. Weirdly enough, considering what would happen to Jimmy, Winecas Field was practically next door to the celebrated horse races at Ascot. But just how those English Winkfields planted themselves in the far-off blue fields of Kentucky, and what they did there, is a story buried long ago in the hurts and loveliness of that conflicted state.
George and Victoria had a boy, Augustus, in 1855, another boy, Samuel, in 1856, a girl, Rachel, in 1857, and the Civil War didn't slow them down. They had a third boy, William, in 1862, and a second girl, Bettie, in 1864, and kept right on going, and after the war a sprinkling of farmhouses sprang up around the Winkfields. The people there would not forget Sam Uttinger. They would revere him for having been brave enough to sell to George and Victoria amid the racial hatreds and violence of those days—eventually they would even change the name of the place from Chilesburg to Uttingertown.
Whatever magical effects resulted from ancient Winecas Field's proximity to Ascot, George and Victoria were not involved in what outsiders took to be Kentucky's raison d'être: race horses. They stuck to what were really the state's two biggest farm industries, raising tobacco and hemp. Of course, they kept chickens, and probably pigs, too, since the family recipes included the jellied pork loaf known as headcheese, and they likely sharecropped on bigger properties nearby. By 1880, give or take, they had presented tiny Chilesburg with seventeen new citizens. The youngest was Jimmy. Some of Jimmy's older sisters, among them Rachel, Bettie, and Margaret, settled elsewhere, in nearby towns like Lexington and Danville. Some of the brothers did not. They just stayed right there in the sun, farming and raising families on either side of Chilesburg Road, a golden lane that was lucky if it was two wagons wide and half a mile long and that ended in the middle of a yellow wheat field. A few—Gus, Sam, William, Moses—settled close by. All told, the Winkfields ended up with a nice little chunk of the Bluegrass, but the youngest had other ideas.
By 1887, when Jimmy was seven, he was riding saddle horses bareback or hopping off them to perch on a plank fence and watch the thoroughbreds dance down a dirt lane. Jimmy was baby-cheeked, bright-eyed, slender, good-looking, inquisitive. He loved to dress up, dress to kill, and from later pictures it was clear that when he did, the first thing he would do was pose, with his unusually large hands on his hips, leaning forward to find out what was happening next. All ears, all eyes, ready for action.
Records of the dates and circumstances are lost, but George and Victoria both died when Jimmy was very young—and he was out of Chilesburg in a flash. He went to live with one of his sisters in Lexington, which happened to be the hub of America's horse racing universe, the center of its biggest horse-breeding state. Shaped like a wheel, Lexington had fourteen turnpikes shooting out of it like spokes, and once you got spinning around that big wheel, it could fling you anywhere in the world.
The Winchester Pike, the first turnpike Jimmy ever took, came in at three o'clock on the wheel and ran straight into Lexington's heart and soul, at Sixth and Race streets, on the eastern edge of town. This was the Kentucky Association racetrack, oldest in America, founded in 1826. It gave everybody in Lexington, eventually including Jimmy, a powerful sense of tradition. The famous antebellum statesman and perennial presidential candidate Henry Clay had been an officer of the racing association, and John C. Breckinridge had been its president, with a sideline as vice president of the United States.
But to everybody in American racing, the track was still just good old Chittlin' Switch, so called after the railroad switch next door, where the horses were shipped in, and the prized chitterlings—pork tripe—that the track kitchen featured for the trainers, jockeys, and the rest of the help on the "backstretch," the stable and training area. Hard by the track was the black neighborhood whose labor and talent kept it going. This was where Jimmy's sisters lived, and where he got his first job as a shoeshine boy; as relevant a profession as you could exercise in unpaved America, where everybody's shoes and boots were a mess.
All around east Lexington Jimmy found his heroes, America's great black jockeys. Now forgotten, they were once known across the land. They had begun as slaves. They came off the Old South's big horse farms, or from plantations that happened to have racing stables too, and they wound up dominating America's first professional sport from colonial times to the Civil War. Theirs was a strange world even within that strangest of worlds, American slavery. While still slaves, a few of the best competed to the applause of tens of thousands of white and black Americans from New Orleans to New York and made the sporting news the next morning. These slaves lived adventurous lives of travel, excitement, and public praise that other Americans, white or black, could only dream of. They even achieved what felt like freedom—if only for those minutes on a horse and the only race that mattered was the one around the track and the only colors that counted were the colors on their backs, their stables' racing colors. Several moved up to training horses and a few to managing major stables, hiring and firing the black and white help, running the entire business because the white owners didn't know how, all while still trapped in slavery.
They first appeared on the scene decades before the American Revolution. One of them, Austin Curtis, was America's first great professional athlete and star of the colonies' first premier racing region—along the raging Roanoke River on the Virginia–North Carolina border. Like all the others, he is unknown to historians, and you will not find him in any textbook. A brilliant tactician, Curtis made his owner, a North Carolina founding father named Willie Jones, the richest horseman in America. They got along and as slave and master formed the nation's first brilliant athlete-manager combination. Curtis was freed for services to America during the Revolution, services that included the extremely dangerous job of keeping Jones's valuable thoroughbreds out of the hands of the then-conquering British cavalry.
Dumped in Charleston off a slave ship right after the Revolution, the teenaged hunchback called Simon became the most celebrated rider across the South, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi. Before 1810 he was brought to Tennessee, where he became the invincible nemesis of General Andrew Jackson. With a mare named Haynie's Maria, Simon beat every horse Jackson could throw at him. The wise-cracking, banjo-strumming Simon had a wicked mouth, and he was so brilliant in the saddle he could get away with turning it on anybody, the bigger the better. One day the six-foot, one-inch General Jackson issued an order to the four-foot, six-inch slave jockey.
"Now, Simon, when my horse comes up and is about to pass you, don't spit your tobacco juice in his eyes, and in the eyes of his
Excerpted from Wink by ED HOTALING. Copyright © 2005 by Ed Hotaling. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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