Posted: Tue April 30, 2013 12:15PM; Updated: Wed May 1, 2013 9:45AM
Tim Layden

Kevin Krigger "embracing the opportunity" to make Derby history

Kevin Krigger (cont.)

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Kevin Krigger
Kevin Krigger, riding Goldencents, has a chance to become the first African-American jockey to win the Kentucky Derby since 1902.
Zoe Metz/

LOUISVILLE -- History is the connective tissue of sports; we are comfortable learning it, measuring it and chasing it. We understand where it possesses a value that's nearly sacred (DiMaggio's 56, Wilt's 100, Secretariat's ... anything), and we understand where athletic evolution has created a wall between what was and what is (the four-minute mile). We are moved by qualifiers that define performance: "The most touchdown passes since..." or "The fewest stolen bases since," because they erect mileposts, assigning value to achievement that is otherwise undefined except in its moment. Some of these are meaningful, others are pointless and contrived. Then there comes the occasional record that reaches so far across time that it seems lost, and nearly immeasurable.

Late Saturday afternoon in the running of the 139th Kentucky Derby, Kevin Krigger, 29, will become the first African-American jockey to ride in the Run for the Roses since Marlon St. Julien in 2000 and, much more startlingly, only the second since Henry King in 1921. Krigger will be aboard Goldencents, the winner of the Santa Anita Derby -- the most important and respected West Coast Derby prep race -- and one of the handful of horses expected to be among the betting favorites in what is regarded as a relatively wide-open Derby field.

"I appreciate the position I'm in," Krigger said Monday morning, as he leaned against a saw horse outside Goldencents's temporary home on the Churchill Downs backstretch. "I'm embracing the opportunity. I'm ready for it."

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Krigger's presence is another slice of the ugliest of American stories. African-American jockeys once dominated not only the Kentucky Derby, but all of American racing. Long before the first Derby was run in 1875, wealthy white landowners raced their horses with slave jockeys. In a 2009 article in Smithsonian, Lisa Winkler wrote, "Because racing was tremendously popular in the South, it is not surprising that the first black jockeys were slaves. They cleaned the stables and handled the grooming and training of some of the country's most valuable horseflesh. From such responsibility, slaves developed the abilities needed to calm and connect with Thoroughbreds, skills demanded of successful jockeys."

The first Kentucky Derby was run 10 years after slavery was abolished, and 13 of the 15 jockeys were African-American. Of the first 28 Derbies, 15 were won by African-American riders. One of the best was Jimmy (Wink) Winkfield, who won back-to-back Derbies in 1901 and 1902 and finished second in 1903. His 1902 victory, however, would be the last Derby win for an African-American rider.

Segregation soon overwhelmed the sport; by the early 1920s African-America riders were completely gone from mainstream racing for the rest of the century. In 2000, the Louisiana-born St. Julien, who won riding titles at Delta Downs and Lone Star Park in the 1990s, finished seventh on Curule. St. Julien's presence was but an interruption of the norm; Krigger's could be the same thing.

According to Terry Meyocks, the national manager of the jockeys' guild, there are approximately 1,000 active jockeys in the United States, of whom only 50 are African-American. (Both measures, said Meyocks, are estimates; the jockeys' guild does not conduct surveys or otherwise actively measure the race or ethnicity of its members.) The most successful recent African-American rider is Deshawn Parker, 42, who has won more than 4,600 races -- among the top 50 all-time win totals. However, most of Parker's wins have been accumulated while riding at Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, which would be considered several levels below the top of the sport.

Hall of Fame jockey's Chris McCarron's Kentucky-based North American Racing Academy has accepted more than 60 student jockeys in its six-year history (19 graduates are currently riding in North America and have a cumulative total of more than 1,800 wins). According to McCarron, "We haven't even had [an African-American] applicant."

The sport is dominated at its highest levels by Latino riders. It is highly debatable that Krigger can alter that trend in any significant way, yet there is little question that a victory in the most important (arguably the only important) horse race in America will bring life-altering attention to Krigger, and by extension, to the history of African-American riders. Sports cultures have been affected by less. There is little doubt that Goldencents should be a major player in the Derby; his trainer Doug O'Neill trained last year's Derby and Preakness and winner, I'll Have Another.

Krigger's story confirms that he's earned his place in the starting gate in the time-honored manner of the journeyman rider. He is a survivor, not a comet.

His story begins on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands; Krigger says he began riding horses bareback, with a rope instead of a bridle, at the age of five without his parents' permission. He climbed onto the horses' backs from the roof of a nearby car.

"Nobody taught me," says Krigger. "I jumped on their backs and I rode."

At age 10, he says, he was given a foal by his grandmother, who had been given the foal from an uncle named Daniel. Krigger named the foal Dandella, broke her and then raced her in flat, quarter- and half-mile match races all over the island for seven years. "I probably raced her 100 times, and maybe she lost four," says Krigger.

In the middle of the telling, he broke into a wide smile and began nodding. "This all sounds unbelievable to you, doesn't it?" he said. "It's all the truth."

Krigger's father, Albert, 59, who retired three years ago from his job as a diesel mechanic in a rum distillery and moved to the United States to be near his son, chimes in a few minutes later, saying, "It's true, he just jumped on those horses and he loved to ride.''

In fact, Krigger's story is not so terribly different from many others of jockeys raised in cultures that embrace the horse. He says he worked on tourist horse tours with a friend name Steve Odee, who "helped me understand horses." He was befriended by an older jockey named Julio Felix, who talked to Krigger on the phone and encouraged him to bring his tack to United States. And, like many others, the story becomes more trying when Krigger finally comes to the U.S. to earn a living at the race track. He started at Thistledown Race Track near Cleveland, and after achieving some success, went to the much more competitive Southern California circuit as an apprentice. When he lost his "bug," the smaller weight that apprentice jockeys are allowed to carry, his mounts declined.

Kevin Krigger
Kevin Krigger celebrates with assistant trainer Leandro Mora after winning the 2013 running of the Santa Anita Derby.
Alex Evers/

And with that began a nine-year sojourn at more than a dozen racetracks from Seattle to Ohio. Sometimes he was successful and sometimes he was not. In 2007 he fractured three vertebrae in a bad fall at Indiana Downs and a year later was fired from first call riding by a Midwestern trainer. By then he and his partner, Taisha Mintas, had three children of their own (in addition to Mintas's daughter from a previous relationship). Krigger took the family home to St. Croix and stayed for a year before returning to the U.S. late in 2010.

A subtle transformation had taken place. Always -- and still -- ebullient, Krigger cut his dreadlocks before coming back to the U.S. in favor of a tight cut and a small goatee, attempting to convey the type of businesslike reliability that top-level trainers and owners like to see in jockeys.

"My dreads, they weren't the image of the jockey," says Krigger. "Look around the top riders. They are all clean-cut guys. I wasn't going to risk my career to keep [my dreads]."

He returned to northern California, where he had been successful in the early 2000s and again rode well. He was spotted by veteran Los Angeles racetracker Tom Knust, who recruited Krigger to move his game south in late December of 2011.

"At the time, I didn't know he had four kids," says Knust. "That was a big move for him. He was doing well up there. He was paying his bills and taking care of his family. He was risking it. That took guts."

Standing nearby as Knust talked, Krigger said, "Nahhhhh. I knew what was going to happen."

There is an eerie similarity between I'll Have Another and Goldencents. A year ago, O'Neill took a chance on little-known rider Mario Gutierrez, whose book was handled by 85-year-old agent and SoCal fixture Ivan Puhich. This year O'Neill has taken a chance on Krigger and Knust, another SoCal racing fixture.

Knust, a 65-year-old Los Angeles-area native, has held nearly every job on the racetrack, from assistant trainer to mutual clerk to racing secretary. He walks with a pronounced limp, the detritus of a head wound he took as a teenaged Marine in Vietnam in the summer of 1967. "I was 19 years old, I was invincible," says Knust. "I wanted to be in the Marines. I wanted to be in the infantry. I wanted an adventure. I got everything I wanted." He says he was wounded less than a month into his tour and needed six months of rehab that life him with lifelong drop-foot and weakness on his right side.

Yet there's not an ounce of lookback. "I don't regret it all,'' says Knust. But he also says that, after four and a half decades on the track, "This is the most excited I've ever been in racing. This is special." (Knust's last trip to the Derby was in 2004, when his jockey, Corey Nakatani, finished dead last behind Smarty Jones on Quintons Gold Rush).

With Knust hustling mounts, Krigger finished 10th in the hyper-competitive Santa Anita jockey standings at the just-concluded winter meet. He is not dominant, but he is making a solid living. No professional relationship has been more important for Krigger than the one with O'Neill, who first put him on Goldencents -- the horse who is owned in part (just five percent) by Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino -- for an August workout in Del Mar Race Track. "They had great chemistry," says O'Neill. (Another trainer says, "Kevin Krigger is a good gate jockey, and Goldencents needs a gate rider; if he doesn't get away clean, he's done.")

O'Neill also likes Krigger's lifestyle. "He gets here early, works hard," says O'Neill. "He doesn't drink."

That can be a jockey thing, suggests a writer.

"And a trainer thing," says O'Neill.

Knust has experienced it. He held the book for multiple substance offender Patrick Valenzuela and also recently for Kent Desormeaux, a talented rider who has had several recent public issues involving alcohol. Knust says that Krigger, even though he is relatively tall, 5-foot-6, doesn't have to cut weight on a daily basis. "The guys who have to pull four or five pounds every day," says Knust, "I'm not surprised they drink. That's a tough life."

Together O'Neill and Krigger have rebuilt Goldencents in the run to Louisville. A fast horse, he got hooked into a three-quarter-mile speed duel with Flashback, another fast horse, in the March 9 San Felipe Stakes. Many handicappers wrote him off as too unruly to contend in the Derby. A month later, Krigger successfully rated Goldencents in the Santa Anita Derby before turning him loose for victory in what many railbirds regard as the most impressive Derby prep race.

On that afternoon, Krigger leaped high off his mount in celebration. He is making history now, in racing and his own.

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