Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The 1924 Kentucky Derby: Black Gold vs. Big Oil

The story of the 1924 Kentucky Derby is celebrated, after a fashion, in the 1947 movie, Black Gold, starring Anthony Quinn.  It is also the subject of Marguerite Henry's excellent YA novel, Black Gold.

But the story has never been framed the way it happened, against the backdrop of greed and violence against the Osage Nation, of the greater manipulation of markets by Big Oil.  The race is a parable for what was happening on a larger scale.

In the 1924 Kentucky Derby, the rivalry was between Big Oil tycoon Harry F. Sinclair and his high-priced colt, Bracadale, versus the independent horsewoman, Rosa Hoots, and her homebred dream horse, Black Gold.

Oil had been discovered on Osage land, and the newspapers talked about her $12,000 allotment, but it was nothing compared to the massive wealth of Sinclair and his big oil company.

Derby Day, 1924, broke with black clouds hanging over the track, threatening rain.  A brisk breeze made patrons feel uncomfortable.  The horses lined up, but Earle Sande, jockey of Bracadale, caused some trouble at the start.  Bracadale led after a quarter mile, and opened a three-length lead after a half.  Black Gold broke well but was taken back.  The official race chart shows him fifth after the quarter and sixth after the half.

The reporter for the Louisville Daily Courier said that Black Gold was hit hard, "almost knocked over the rail," which was the cause of his taking back.  Another newspaper reported only that he was "knocked off stride."  The other papers made no mention of a collision, but say only that he was taken up, "causing his backers to lose heart."

Historians such as Peter Chew have since interviewed all the principal players, and what happened is this:  Earle Sande broke out of the gate quickly on the outside.  Black Gold, who had drawn the inside post position also broke well, but Sande angled Bracadale all the way across the track and slammed into Black Gold.  A newspaper man thought that Sande and some of the other riders were purposely trying to prevent Black Gold from winning the race at all costs.

But whatever troubles occurred, it was not enough to stop Black Gold in a courageous stretch run that won the race by a half-length in front of a blanket finish, with Bracadale officially two heads and a nose further back in fifth place.

Earle Sande, rider of Bracadale, claimed that he had been third, not fifth, and it appears from the movie clip and the pictures of the finish that Sande was correct.  However, as one newspaperman noted, Sande may have been unofficially disqualified from sharing in third place money due to his foul against Black Gold.  The official result was that Bracadale finished fifth and Sande was Suspended for ten days after the race.

Rosa Hoots was presented with the winner's gold trophy and over $50,000.  But in the decade to follow, her family lost nearly everything.  Someone even broke into their house and stole the Kentucky Derby trophy and the family pictures.  Black Gold broke his leg in a race in New Orleans, was then put down and buried in the infield at Fairgrounds Racetrack.

Rosa Hoots died at the age of 70 in 1938.  Her descendants included her grandson, Richard W. Freeman, of Garland, Texas.  Mr. Freeman was in Louisville at the 1924 Kentucky Derby, an infant in the arms of his mother.  When researching my second book of American Indian genealogy, Indian Blood II, I contacted him, and he generously supplied me with his genealogy, which I then extended a bit and published with the rest of my work.  I provided him with pictures of Rosa Hoots and of his mother holding him, pictures I printed out from the microfilm of the old newspapers.

During his lifetime, Mr. Freeman resisted the injustices forced upon his people.  During the Eisenhower administration, an ill-advised forced assimilation policy was conducted by the Government.  Many tribes were forced abruptly off the reservations to take up residence in big city ghettos where they languished and despaired.

At the time, Mr. Freeman seemed a lone voice in the wilderness, but he set about persuading others--Senator Barry Goldwater, then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, and others with clout.  As an ambassador of his people, through his hard work enlisting allies, Mr. Freeman helped to put an end to this destructive policy.

After Indian Blood II was published in 1995, we kept in touch, and we continued to exchange Christmas cards up until the year he died.  One year, when Churchill Downs held an Old Kentucky Derby Day of sorts, he had a family reunion in the club house and arranged passes for my wife and I to join them.  His family presented him with a replica of the 1924 Kentucky Derby trophy, which he then donated to the Kentucky Derby museum.

He was a very good man.


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