In the 19th century, horse racing was America’s most popular sporting event, and the Bluegrass was its center. Foaled in 1850, the horse Lexington became the most famous horse to ever come out of Kentucky. His outstanding career on the track and at stud might never have happened had it not been for the skill of two African American trainers and a Black jockey.
Edward Troye, American, 1808 – 1874 (Artist); Richard Singleton – Paul Mellon Collection; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond
“Burbridge’s Harry” was an enslaved horse trainer on Capt. George Burbridge’s Thoroughbred farm in Scott County, Kentucky. Before 1834, Harry was sold to Burbridge’s neighbor, Willa Viley. One of the horses trained for Viley by Harry was Richard Singleton. In 1835 Viley commissioned artist Edward Troye to paint his horse. The portrait also shows an impeccably dressed Harry, standing at the horse’s head, providing a rare image of an enslaved African American horseman.
Census records indicate that by 1850 Harry had been emancipated, changed his name to Harry Lewis, and was working as a horse trainer in nearby Georgetown. Evidence of how and when Harry gained his freedom has yet to be found.
In 1853 an aging Dr. Elisha Warfield, considered the “founder of the Kentucky turf,” leased the racing rights of his promising three-year-old stallion, Darley, to Harry Lewis for the upcoming Lexington race season. As it was forbidden for an African American — free or enslaved — to enter a horse in a race in Kentucky, Darley ran in Warfield’s colors. Lewis selected an African American jockey, John Porters (or Porter) to pilot Darley in both races. Porters had also been enslaved to Willa Viley, possibly at the same time as Harry Lewis. Darley was entered for the upcoming Phoenix Hotel Stakes and was also scheduled to run four days later in the Citizen’s Stakes, both at Lexington’s Kentucky Association track. Darley won both one-mile heats of the Phoenix with no serious challenge.
Between races, a syndicate led by Richard Ten Broeck, a Louisiana racing promoter, bought Darley from Warfield for $2,500. He planned to take Darley south to represent Kentucky in the “Great State Post Stakes,” which he was organizing at his track in New Orleans. He also followed the common tradition of the time when horses changed owners by later renaming his new horse Lexington.
Darley stepped up in distance at the Citizen Stakes, which was contested in three two-mile heats. After losing the first, Darley came back to take the second and third heats and was thus declared the winner.
A dispute arose after Darley’s victory as to who should receive the purse – the syndicate or Harry Lewis. In a landmark decision, the Kentucky Racing Association ruled in Harry’s favor, allowing him to collect $2,150 for winning both races. (approximately $38,200 today)
Ironically, one member of Ten Broeck’s syndicate was Willa Viley. After the second race, Ten Broeck wanted to have jockey John Porters return with him to ride Lexington in New Orleans. Viley strongly objected and the offer to Porters was rescinded. Why would Viley’s opposition have carried such weight? Does this indicate that John Porters remained enslaved by Viley, and would have needed his permission and a pass to travel with Ten Broeck to New Orleans?
Working in Elisha Warfield’s stable in 1853 was the enslaved trainer, Eli Jordan. Jordan later commented in an interview that he had been responsible for the care of Darley’s dam, Alice Carneal, who was also owned by Warfield. As Darley was not raced as a two-year-old, is it possible that it was Jordan who provided his early training for the track?
After the ratification of the thirteenth amendment ended slavery, Jordan became a highly successful and nationally respected trainer and long-time resident of Lexington’s East End. He was equally famous for becoming the mentor, father figure, and friend of 14-year-old apprentice jockey, Isaac Murphy. In 1874, Murphy began his work with Jordan and moved in with him and his family as he learned his trade. As Murphy went on to fame, Jordan often remarked that he was as proud of Isaac’s honesty and character as he was of his riding skills.
The questions raised above are what makes the history of African Americans in the horse industry so compelling and often difficult. For every question answered, three more are asked, and before emancipation, much of this history was never recorded. History is not finite. It is much more than dates, wars, and famous people. It is a search for truth, based on a historian’s interpretations of our experiences. As such no two are exactly the same. To paraphrase one of Phoenix Rising’s more eloquent directors: There is no Black history or White history, just American history, and to be accurate it must encompass us all.
PS: We are still actively seeking information on Harry Lewis, John Porters or Porter, and Eli Jordan. If you have any additional information or have traced any of these men to your family, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org .