It is a long way from “Wink” to colour blindness; from the closet to closure. Though very different journeys, both ascend brutal gradients of prejudice – and, as such, both have just reached a landmark.
Today, in the home town of Cassius Clay, Kevin Krigger becomes only the second black jockey since 1921 to contest the Kentucky Derby – and, riding one of the favourites, could be the first to win it since Jimmy Winkfield in 1902. Whatever happens, Krigger has already renewed the legacy of “Wink” and other African Americans who dominated the early years of the Derby.
Jason Collins has faced another kind of struggle. He could no sooner choose his sexual orientation than the colour of his skin. But he could keep it secret, in basketball and in his own life, and did so for years – until this week becoming the most eminent figure to come out of the mainstream American locker room and admit he is gay.
So sport reminds us all there can be no collective tide of justice without the groundswell of individual conscience; that there is nothing inevitable about progress. Sometimes, thanks to corresponding moral prowess in one exalted to society’s elite by physical gifts, sport can light a path. But it can also drag its heels mulishly. Its cheerfully irrational tribalism is fertile in fear and loathing, pride and prejudice.
Yes – whatever progress still needs to be made, not least on the pitch itself – racism is less obnoxiously prevalent at our football grounds now, compared with the 1970s. If only because every bigot saw black players enhancing his own team, football arguably assisted a broader assimilation. We nowadays profess ourselves duly scandalised by racism abroad. But we remain no less antediluvian in equivalent challenges. Where, for instance, is our Jason Collins?
Like it or not, the sheer expense of watching football – since the tragic tale of Justin Fashanu – has probably brought the environment at least a little closer to the relatively tolerant, middle-class ones that received Steven Davies in cricket and Gareth Thomas or Nigel Owens in rugby. But football’s professional community itself seems to remain as intimidating as hostile fans.
One life is complicated enough for most of us. Out there somewhere is a footballer contemplating a paradox: should he exchange one dual identity for another? Precisely by insisting on his right to be treated like everyone else, he will turn himself into a pioneer for life. He cannot just be a footballer who happens to be gay. He will be vilified by a few, cherished by many. It will be nearly as heroic to achieve ordinariness as to claim it in the first place.
To that extent, there are legitimate parallels with those who have made ground-breaking stands against racial prejudice. All they sought was dignity – to be someone who excels, and just happens to be black. Funnily enough, Krigger is closer to achieving that status than the appalling context suggests. For the menial labour by which the underprivileged typically enter his sport is largely undertaken by Hispanics – source, in turn, of most emerging jockeys in America. Racing has not penetrated urban black populations the same way. Krigger is from the Virgin Islands.
The first Kentucky Derby, only a decade after the abolition of slavery, was contested by 13 black jockeys out of 15. The winner was trained by an emancipated slave. Blacks rode 15 of the first 28 winners. All this reflected the fact that grooms – who had, until recently, often been slaves – developed a useful affinity with these flighty animals. By the time Winkfield arrived on the scene, however, Jim Crow poison had infected the privileges enjoyed by jockeys.
Still only 21, rider of the previous two Derby winners, Winkfield was on his way to post in 1903 when the starter yelled: “You little nigger! Who told you that you knew how to ride?” The following year he emigrated to discover improbable celebrity and wealth in Tsarist Russia. After the Revolution, he helped shepherd 260 racehorses 1,100 miles across burning battlefields from Odessa to Warsaw. All but 10 of the horses survived.
He moved to France, became a trainer and started a new family. One day the wife and son he had abandoned in Moscow appeared on his doorstep. The former would die in an asylum; the latter was fatally stabbed in a fight. In 1940 the Nazis seized Winkfield’s stables and he returned to America to work on a road crew and drink moonshine. After the war, he returned to France but was invited back to Louisville on the 60th anniversary of his first Derby. Long explanations were required before he was eventually admitted to the hotel staging the banquet. When he died, at 91, half a century had elapsed since the last black jockey had even ridden in the Derby.
Winkfield had flagrant flaws of his own. But sport does not need saints to make a stand against hate in the wider world – just human beings. Because that is all such men ever want to be.