WATCH: Harlemites Honor the Kentucky Derby’s Black Roots With ‘Harlem Derby’ Party

By Sameer Rao May 08, 2017

Much of the attention surrounding the Kentucky Derby ignores the famous horse race’s legacy of Black jockeys and trainers who excelled in its early history. Kentucky-native, Harlem-based fashion designer Rob Owens centers that history via his annual "Harlem Derby" galas, which The Undefeated profiles in a new video (above) and accompanying feature posted yesterday (May 8). 

"We celebrate this thing we call the Kentucky Derby every year," Owens, who co-founded the Harlem Derby Style fashion line and designed a hat series named after Black jockeys, says in the video. "However, most African Americans don’t know that we are the pioneers of this billion-dollar sport we celebrate. I wanted to bring to the community the celebration and the legacy of the Black jockey."

To that end, Owens hosted his fifth annual Harlem Derby gala, "Run for the Roses," on race day (May 7). Black patrons dressed to the nines in ornate hats, dresses and suits lined a red carpet outside Harlem’s Black-owned Red Rooster restaurant before going inside to enjoy the fast-paced race and bourbon cocktails.

"This is always fun," Red Rooster owner Marcus Samuelsson says in the article. "The ladies in Harlem, they don’t need the Derby. They wear hats all the time, every Sunday. But anytime you can celebrate a tradition like this, Harlem will always put its spin on it. And it’s happening right now. It’s awesome to be part of this celebration."

The Undefeated’s associate editor Rhiannon Walker dissects the derby’s little-known Black forebearers in another video published yesterday: 

"Of the jockeys featured in the first Kentucky Derby, 13 of the 15 were Black," Walker says in the video. "And 15 of the first 28 winners were African-American men."

Early champions recognized in Walker’s video include Isaac Burns Murphy and James "Jimmy" Winkfield, the first Black jockeys to win back-to-back titles.

Owens adds in the article that he hopes to spread this history by hosting more galas in the future, noting that "there are Derby parties all up and down [major Harlem corridor] Lenox Avenue now."