May 1, 2009

Jimmy Winkfield



So, a few months ago I finished reading this superb little book called Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend. It's funny because I think around the same time another book came out about the same jockey called Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Jouney of Jimmy Winkfield. I looked at both and ultimately picked up Black Maestro because I didn't like the word wink. Or at least that's what I remember now. The reasoning behind it seems a little fuzzy now, but I could see myself not liking the word wink suddenly. Right now it's not bothering me. Wink, wink, wink.... See? No issues. But I could probably have seen myself cringing at that word at some point. I get things like that in my head sometimes.

Whoa! I've really digressed here. Anyway, the point is that it's a terribly interesting little book. I am a bit obsessed with this untold legacy (untold at least from my point of view) of phenomenal black jockeys in American race riding. Call me stupid, naive, whatever...but prior to about a couple of years ago I hadn't even realized for a fairly large span of time (from the Civil War up until the turn of the century) America's best jockeys were African American. I happen to find it very bizarre that you don't always see see a lot of color in the horse world. It makes me feel like my sport is very elitist (yes, I know it is....but please give me the benefit of a doubt).

But it makes so much sense. This was a legitimate way of battling racism and gaining some modicum of equality (at least on one tiny level). Jimmy Winkfield endured a disgusting amount of cruelty on a daily basis and yet this man transcended racism by becoming somewhat of a racing legend. He won two back-to-back Kentucky Derbies! Only 4 jockeys have done this! Why is he so forgotten, then? I can't for the life of me figure it out.

Yet really, this book isn't just about a black man who defeats the odds and makes it big. No, it's far more complex than that. It's about a man (simply) who wins two back-to-back Derbies before feeling like he had to escape the increasing violence in America. He ends up in Russia and becomes a true celebrity. He dominates everything and has a massive amount of fame and respect. He becomes fabulously wealthy and marries a Russian heiress (who is white, mind).

And it all happens again. He loses everything in the Russian revolution and banding together with like-minded jockeys and trainers, he drives 200 thoroughbreds across the Transylvanian Alps to Poland, all of them barely surviving the journey. Jimmy is the kind of person I cannot imagine being, the kind of person who can utterly lose everything and still pick themselves up and start all over again. Not just start again, but succeed all over again. And so he does, in Paris. Hobnobbing with the wealthy and famous, training racehorses in a villa outside of the cosmopolitan city. Yet it's not long before Nazis come through to commandeer his property and he must flee back to America.

I guess, like I said, I have a fascination with people who are what is commonly referred to as 'survivors.' There are days in which I feel so fragile and I get so devastated over the smallest of things, that I cannot possibly comtemplate being tough enough to deal with a fraction of what Jimmy went through. I know this isn't true, of course, but I let myself get a bit depressed too easily. And I look at someone like Jimmy and I think, "Well, if he could do that, I can certainly pull myself together and meet my ridiculous fears today." This man was a master of his own destiny and a man we should all read about and aspire to be.

There's no happy ending to this book, really. Jimmy wasn't a great man; he was often fairly cruel to those who loved him. But it doesn't matter - you love him anyway. You love him because he didn't stand idly by. You love him because he lived life to the fullest, with the highest of highs and lowest of lows. You love him because he didn't give a shit what anyone thought of him and he made that totally clear. I loved him for showing me that there's no stopping me from accomplishing all the things I aspire to do and be. Well, except my paranoia and anxiety disorders. :)

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