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Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend.

Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend by Joe Drape William Morrow, April 2006 $24.96, ISBN 0-060-53729-9

A Forgotten Horseman: A Son's Weekend Memoir by Lee E. Downing Lee E. Downing, March 2006 $26, ISBN 1-599-75880-6

From 1875 through 1966, only two jockeys won back-to-back Kentucky Derbies--both black and largely ten celebrated. Traditionally, the "horsemen" who bathed, combed, brushed, fed and schooled Thoroughbred show horses and racecourse steeds were African Americans. They were stable boys, grooms, trainers and jockeys employed by rich white people.

Two recent books give black horsemen a little limelight. In Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend, New York Times sports reporter Joe Drape tells the story of Jimmy Winkfield, who was born in 1882 in Chilesburg, Kentucky, and who won two consecutive Kentucky Derbies, in 1901 and 1902; the latter being the last Derby triumph for a black jockey. That was 104 years ago! Subsequently, vicious white jockeys, especially in and around New York City, and prospective employment persuaded Winkfield to free America, leaving his first wife behind, and sail for Russia in 1904.

Winkfield had been around horses since age seven, and became an outstanding rider. In Europe, he basked in wealth and celebrity, and the Russians went on to name him "Black Maestro." While there, he also remarried. When the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 forced the horse-racing establishment to free Moscow for Odessa, Winkfield elected to leave his wife, Alexandra, and son George. As the Red Army approached Odessa, the entire establishment--Winkfield, horsemen, and horse owners--marched 260 Thoroughbreds on an arduous, three-month trip to Warsaw.

He left Poland for France, where, now in his forties, he trained more horses than he rode. The Second World War and the Nazis drove him, his third wife, Lydie de Minkwitz, a baroness, and their son, Robert, out of Europe and back to the United States. (Their daughter, Liliane, had previously been sent to live with Winkfield's niece in Cincinnati.) After scuffling for several years, Winkfield and his wife accumulated enough money to return to Paris.

Drape weaves relevant history around the jockey, describing the circumstances that Winkfield faced--early 20th century racism in America, pre-World War I Europe, the Communist revolution in Russian, the emergence of Nazism and, of course, World War II.

Was Winkfield a legend? Certainly. An American legend? Not quite. Winkfield lived most of his 91 years in Europe; his children were born in Europe; and Europe accorded him his due. He wouldn't have himself buried in America.

In A Forgotten Horseman: A Son's Weekend Memoir, Lee E. Downing, a human organ procurement specialist, writes a paean to his father, Thomas Downing, a show horse trainer who never left "the Saddlebred Kingdom of North Middletown, Kentucky," where he was born. The author, at age 10, accompanied his father, another horseman and their six equine charges to a prestigious horse show. There, ridden by their leisure-class owners, both men and women, the horses would canter, trot, high-step and jump to win prizes for stylish performances.

Downing poignantly narrates what he learned about his father and the horses during the three-day show. Thomas Downing, who had schooled the horses, taught his son how to handle saddles, bridles, halters, reins and other horse gear. He explained how to touch a horse's rear: "Talk to the horse first and run your hand along his body from front to back to avoid startling him."

The son observed his father's relationship to other horsemen and to his employer, a horse-owning doctor. And like a fly on the wall, Lee sat in as black men from various stables bantered during their evening meal. He saw his father as a loving mentor, a somber man who preferred horses to people. Lee realized his father possessed an "uncanny and remarkable gift" that enabled him to relate to horses, which responded with trust and confidence.

--Reviewed by C. Gerald Fraser C. Gerald Fraser is a former New York Times cultural news reporter and a frequent contributor to BIBR.
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Title Annotation:A Forgotten Horseman: A Son's Weekend Memoir
Author:Fraser, C. Gerald
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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