This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: “To the stars through difficulties.”
Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton was at the top of his game as the youngest jockey to ever win the Kentucky Derby. It was 1892. He was 15 years old and a national star.
But by the early 1900s, the nation’s whims had changed and racism was preventing many African-Americans from succeeding.
Clayton found himself scrambling for work, even arrested for fixing a race.
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Although he tried to make comebacks, Clayton never could. Still, more than a century after his win, Clayton is considered one of horse racing’s great jockeys. He was born in Kansas City in 1876. There is some dispute as to what part of Kansas City he was from. According to the Kansas State Historical Society, he was born in Kansas. Missouri also claims him. What is known is that his father was a carpenter. He had eight siblings. Growing up, he ran errands at a local hotel and worked as a shoeshine boy. When he was 10, his family moved to Little Rock, Ark. He ran away from home when he was 12. He went to Chicago and joined a brother who was working as a jockey in Chicago. It was 1888. By 1890, Clayton was winning major races. Up until the turn of the 20th century, black jockeys were favored to run the horses, according to an article by Lisa Winkler titled “The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Jockeys” for Smithsonian.com. The participation of African-Americans in horse racing, Winkler wrote, dated to colonial times.
Slaves handled the horses, groomed them and trained them. After the Civil War, when slaves were freed, there was sentiment among the white upper classes that they didn’t want to share the horse races with blacks.
White jockeys formed unions, preventing black jockeys from participating.
According to the Kentucky Derby’s website, www.kentuckyderby.info, black jockeys did not participate in the race for 79 years — until 2000, when Marlon St. Julien rode Curule to a seventh-place finish.
Clayton, however, distinguished himself on four derby mounts in his career with a victory, two seconds and a third, according to Kentucky Derby records.
On May 11, 1892, Clayton rode Azra, a 2-year-old thoroughbred colt, to victory in the Kentucky Derby. He was also the leading rider at Churchill Downs in the fall of 1893.
In 1896, he finished third in the Preakness riding a filly named Intermission. But by 1904, he was arrested for fixing a horse race — although the charges were later dismissed.
Clayton died in 1917 from tuberculosis, having spent the last years of his life working as a bellhop in a California hotel.