Jockey Kevin Krigger hopes to become first African-American to win Kentucky Derby since 1902
Krigger rides Santa Anita winner Goldencents in the 139th Run of the Roses at Churchill Downs on May 4
By Jerry Bossert / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
There’s one thing Kevin Krigger doesn’t lack — confidence — when it comes to race riding or challenging history.
If you ask the 29-year-old jockey who is going to win the Kentucky Derby, he’ll gladly tell you it will be Goldencents, the horse he’ll be riding on the first Saturday in May.
Krigger rode Goldencents to victory in the April 6 Santa Anita Derby, becoming the first African-American jockey to win that race in its 76-year history. If he wins the May 4 Kentucky Derby, he would become the first black jockey to win the Derby since 1902, when Jimmy Winkfield rode the second of his back-to-back winners, His Eminence and then Alan-a-Dale.
“It’s sad,” Krigger says of the drought, especially considering that black jockeys once dominated the Derby, winning 15 of the first 28 Derby’s run from 1875-1902. “But I’m ready to be the first since then. No doubt about it, I’m going to be part of history.”
Racism and the introduction of Jim Crow laws ran black riders out of racetracks. Even Churchill Downs, where the Derby will be held for the 139th time this Saturday, was completely segregated through the 1950s.
Today, African-American jockeys are still hard to find in any riding colony throughout the country.
“Being African-American is a rarity in horse racing but I don’t feel that’s an excuse,” says Krigger, a father of four. “It’s about working harder and I’m going to work harder than anyone. If African-Americans dominated the sport, I’d be the African-American that works the hardest. I base my success on working hard. If I used that excuse, I’m limiting myself. I have no limits to reach my goals.”
“He’s got a very good work ethic and never complains about any horse,” says Krigger’s 65-year-old agent Tom Knust, who has worked for Kent Desormeaux and Pat Valenzuela. “He knows he’s a jockey and that’s what he gets paid for. Every day, six days a week he never misses a morning. Sometimes maybe he gets a Tuesday off but that’s it.”
Krigger, who stands 5-6, is just the second black jockey to compete in the Derby since 1921, and the first since Marlon St. Julien rode Curule to a seventh-place finish in the 2000 Derby.
Born in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Krigger always dreamed of becoming a jockey. He remembers hopping on a neighbor’s horse at the age of 4 or 5 and just taking off. His great grandfather, who had spotted him, ratted him out to his parents. That’s how the family found out their little Kevin had an interest in riding. But it still took several years before they accepted his path, and for his grandmother to get him a horse of his own when he was 10.
“I grew up around horses and was on them before even going to school,” he says. Krigger would race other kids up and down the beaches of St. Croix.
“I had a pretty good win percentage,” he says.
Every year, he made sure to watch the Kentucky Derby on television, imagining himself riding in the race with his saddle swung over the arm of his mother’s couch.
“I’d ride the race with them,” he says, noting Silver Charm (1997) was his favorite Derby winner.
After winning races at tracks in the Virgin Islands, Krigger came to America in 2001, first riding as an apprentice at Thistledown in North Randall, Ohio during the days and nights at Mountaineer Park in Chester, West Virginia.
He then went west and rode at Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco, as well as Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Santa Anita until his apprenticeship ended in 2002, meaning he no longer got a weight concession and had to ride as a journeyman, on equal weights with his competitors.
On Dec. 19, 2007 Krigger went down in a spill at Turfway Park in Ohio, when his mount Polar Vixen clipped heels coming out of the starting gate of the ninth race, throwing Krigger to the ground before eventually falling on top of him.
He fractured three vertebrae in his neck that night, yet was released from the hospital, and tried to return to riding just three months later. The injury hadn’t healed correctly, and Krigger wasn’t himself. He rode in only 88 races in 2008 winning just five. In 2009, the injury limited him to just 99 mounts and six wins. That’s when he decided to have surgery, returning in the summer of 2010. Now, he says, he feels very good.
With his weight advantage gone — his ideal racing weight is 112 pounds — Krigger’s win total dropped and he bounced around the country, ending up back at Golden Gate Fields in 2011, where he finished second in the jockey standings and attracted the attention of Knust, who brought him to Santa Anita in December of 2011.
“I’ve done a lot of traveling,” says Krigger, who is now a regular on the Southern California circuit, and just finished ninth in the Santa Anita meeting that ended on April 21, with 25 winners.
In 2011, he brought home 165 winners, the most in any year of his career with purse earnings of $2,894,835. In 2012, he only won 73 races, but his purse earnings increased to $3,651,569, thanks mainly to the success he had with Goldencents, who won two of three races that year, including a victory in the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot.
Krigger has ridden Goldencents in all six of the colt’s starts, winning four times.
“It was always a dream to go to the Kentucky Derby and it’s nice to be going with a horse like Goldencents,” he says. “I feel pretty confident that we’re going to win. I feel this is by fate not just because of the ability of a horse like Goldencents and not because I’m African-American, but I think we’re going to win the Triple Crown and make some history.”
Affirmed remains the last horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes in 1978.
Doug O’Neill, who last year saddled I’ll Have Another to victories in the Derby and the Preakness before the colt got injured the day before the Belmont, trains Goldencents and loves the confidence Krigger brings.
“He’s wired that way,” says O’Neill. “You got to love it. He’s not cocky or arrogant. He’s just confident. He’s got ice running through his veins.”
Krigger, who is engaged to Taisha Mintas, has never even been to the Kentucky Derby.
“Even when I was riding in Kentucky, when the Derby came around I’d leave because I didn’t want to experience any of it until I got to ride in it,” he says.
“This is my first time and this is the way I want to do it. I want to experience the whole Kentucky Derby environment. I speak highly of winning the race because I know I’m going over there to win it. I have the horse and confidence to say that.
“We’re going to win it.”