We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
A racetrack in obsolescence.
Every year on the third Monday of January, the Aqueduct Racetrack, in South Ozone Park, Queens, runs a six-furlong race in honor of Jimmy Winkfield. The choice of date, Martin Luther King Day, is not accidental. Of Winkfield’s many accomplishments, which include winning the Russian Oaks an incredible five times for Czar Nicholas II, he is best known as the last black jockey to run a winner in the Kentucky Derby, in 1902.
To be black in the world of horse racing was no easy thing in the early part of the twentieth century. Winkfield, born in Kentucky, had enjoyed a storied career in Russia and France, but when he returned to America he was forced to enter a reception held in his honor through the hotel’s service entrance, with the bellhops and the kitchen staff.
Because of the raw January weather, attendance at the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes is usually rather sparse compared to the bigger events at the height of the racing season. This year, my older brother Ilya and I saw the race completely on a whim—we thought it might be fun to trek out to the Aqueduct like we used to when we were younger. Back then, if the weather was fine, our father would drive us to the track out in Ozone Park, a favorite destination for the unattached men in the neighborhood. Edik from the dry cleaners down the street was a fixture there, as was Pavel, the bartender at the Pennant Sports Bar on Northern, and Parsons, whose brother was an orderly at the elder-care facility where our grandfather died. To me, gaining admission to that world of working men was no less exciting than the races themselves. I watched with great interest as they quaffed beer and studied the odds on the board and cursed when they invariably lost their money. Being a bit older, Ilya had a better sense of what was actually going on. He nagged Pavel until the bartender showed him how to decipher the near-hieroglyphic racing form. The one time my father let him place a bet, we won eighty dollars. It proved to be a red-letter day, because that same afternoon, I fed a carrot to Cigar, the Hall of Fame thoroughbred, just before the first big win of his career. (The Aqueduct now runs a race in his honor as well.) Read More >>