The Times-Picayune ~ Sunday, February 23,1997
By Angus Lind

Before the Civil War, the old Metairie Race Course, where Metairie Cemetery is today, was the cradle of racing in the United States. It was a storied track where horsemen, the movers and shakers of the day, and their ladies came on steamboats from all over the country to gamble on thoroughbreds.

It was there, where 1-10 today rises above Metairie Road, that the legend of jockey Abe Hawkins was born. In 1854, Hawkins, a slave who grew up on the Ashland Plantation of Duncan Kenner near Donaldsonville, rode Lecomte when he defeated the invading Lexington in one of the most celebrated match race rematches in turf history. Among the nation's first professional athletes, Hawkins was arguably the first black professional athlete to gain national prominence.

"It wasn't just that he was an African-American jockey, he was the most celebrated jockey in America prior to Isaac Murphy," said Myra Lewyn, the Fair Grounds publicist and researcher, who has been digging up information on Hawkins for months. Murphy, also a black jockey, was first to win three Kentucky Derbies: in 1884,1890 and 1891.

The first Kentucky Derby was run in 1875. Hawkins died in 1867. Had he been alive, there is little doubt he would have had a mount in the Kentucky Derby. "He rode every great horse of his era and after Emancipation he went north to Saratoga where he had a lot of success and gained considerable fame and fortune," Lewyn said. He won the 1866 Travers Stakes at Saratoga aboard a horse named Merrill, and was, in today's lexicon, a superhero in racing circles, someone comparable to Jerry Bailey, Pat Day or Willie Shoemaker.

The Fair Grounds, to which racing shifted after the demise of the Metairie Race Course, will enshrine Hawkins in its Hall of Fame on March 15. But it is fitting during Black History Month, that this story be told. What Lewyn has found in her research was that the widely renowned Hawkins was responsible for popularizing the style of riding that jockeys use today. Known as the "American seat" style of riding, or "riding forward," it was largely credited to Tod Sloan, a flamboyant jockey who began his career here and later took it to England.

Actually, Sloan had copied the style from another black rider, Willie Simms. But, Lewyn said, Hawkins was using the style at least 20 years before Simms adopted it. A 1901 article by an unknown writer in the London Times fondly recalled Hawkins:
"One great rider of the day who in my opinion never had a superior in inducing a horse to make the greatest effort he was capable of rode in the manner which the best of our own jockeys made familiar to race-goers. This was 'Old Abe,' Abe Hawkins. I saw Gil Patrick and John Ford and Abe ride in a race in 1864 in St. Louis, with Hawkins crouching over the mare's neck, knees pressed firmly against her shoulder, a clear space between him and the saddle, specks of froth from between closely set teeth flecking the intensely black visage, eyes flashing, he seemed the very incarnation of frantic energy inspiring the animal to win."

We can only assume that the writer had a rather high-powered set of binoculars, or more likely, in the journalistic style of that day, a keen grasp of poetic license and colorful prose. But the point was well-made: Hawkins as a rider was in a league by himself.

None other than the owner of the defeated Lexington, Robert Alexander, the master of Woodburn Stud, said, "I have seen all the best jockeys in Europe, not one of them is nearly his equal."

"This man made a significant contribution to racing," said Lewyn. Hawkins was also prominently featured in the huge 1860's oil painting "Life on the Metairie," which was destroyed in the Fair Grounds fire of December 1993. It is currently being recreated and will hang in the new clubhouse next racing season.

After Emancipation, Hawkins rode at Saratoga and amassed a great deal of money, and at one point had $20,000 in the bank. He maintained a relationship with Kenner, his former master, and kept in touch with him through Henry Foley, a founder of the Fair Grounds Louisiana Jockey Club. After Kenner's plantation was devastated, Hawkins offered his money to him. Kenner declined, but told Hawkins he would always have a home at Ashland Plantation. When the jockey contracted lung disease in 1867, he returned to Donaldsonville, where he died. He was buried in a brick tomb under a giant live oak overlooking the training track at Ashland, a site picked out by Kenner.

The Fair Grounds has been working along with Kathe Hambrick of the River Road African-American Museum in Darrow, La,. and Louisiana State University archaeologist Chris Hayes in an effort to find the jockey's grave. After falling into disrepair in the early 1900's, the plantation was parceled out and sold to oil and chemical companies, making the search more difficult.

However, some eroding brick mounds, coffin handles and bones have been found on a portion of land owned by Chevron. So perhaps a link to the past of someone who should have been honored a long time ago has now been found= a small remaining tribute to a great athlete whose history, until now, had seemed to be buried with him.

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