Derby Stories

(Above photo: a newspaper clipping of Rodriguez winning a stake at Pimlico on Paul Jones, credit: The Baltimore Sun, Tue. Nov 9, 1920)

"José “Joe” Rodriguez, called the “Cuban Glide,” was the trailblazer for Latinx jockeys in the United States. He emerged from his apprenticeship like a meteor, and by April 1920, Rodriguez was ranked 7th in the nation, having won 42 of his 278 mounts. He spoke no English, but owners and trainers were no less eager to see what the little jock from Cuba could do on their horses.

Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the 1920 Kentucky Derby, all eyes were on the aptly-named Upset—a colt owned by Harry Payne Whitney—who had delivered the shocking (and only) defeat to the formidable Man O’ War in the Sanford Memorial Stakes in 1919. Many hoped to see the two horses do battle again in the Kentucky Derby, but Samuel D. Riddle, Man O’ War’s owner, had announced he would not be bringing him to Louisville for the Derby. Upset became the heavy favorite as a result.

However, Whitney had a problem: Upset’s regular jockey, Hall of Famer Willie Knapp, had retired. Whitney decided to give José Rodriguez the Derby mount. Upset narrowly lost the 1920 Kentucky Derby to Paul Jones, and although Rodriguez was not able to capture the classic race that day, he became the first jockey of Latinx descent to ride in a Triple Crown race. By the end of 1920, Rodriguez--in a fitting twist of fate--had become the regular rider of the horse who beat him in the Kentucky Derby, Paul Jones."

Jessica Whitehead

Jessica Whitehead

Curator of Collections for the Kentucky Derby Museum