Even though the 2020 Kentucky Derby has been postponed until September, May remains the month when Derby history most comes to mind.

People old enough to remember Jack Benny’s television series, which ran from October 1950 to September 1964, or his radio program before that, will recall the character Rochester, played by Edmund Lincoln Anderson (1905-1977).  Mr. Anderson is historically significant in American horse racing as the first African American to own a Kentucky Derby starter. The year was 1943, four years before Jackie Robinson became a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers and integrated Major League Baseball.

Following is an excerpt from the Notable Kentucky African American Database at the University of Kentucky, which describes what transpired when Mr. Anderson’s horse, named Burnt Cork, took on the eventual Triple Crown winner Count Fleet (the term “burnt cork” refers to makeup used by white blackface performers in old-time minstrel shows):

“Several newspapers around the country accused Anderson of entering Burnt Cork in the 1943 Kentucky Derby as a publicity stunt, and prior to the race, Anderson was advised not to enter his horse; its odds were 25-1.  Anderson would not be swayed, however; he attempted to hire jockey Carroll Bierman, who had won the 1940 Kentucky Derby with longshot Gallahadion. 

Anderson, his wife, and his valet stayed at the home of Kentucky House Member Mae Street Kidd in Louisville; the hotels in Louisville were segregated.  Mae Street Kidd did not care much for Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, but got along well with his wife.  Kidd was invited to join the Andersons in their box during the derby.  Burnt Cork came in last place. He had come out of the gate fast, but quickly ran out of steam and came in 10th, 38 lengths behind the winner, Count Fleet, owned by Mrs. John D. Hertz.

Burnt Cork was ridden by jockey Manual Gonzalez and was trained by A. E. Silver.  Edmund Anderson was disappointed in his horse’s performance, but the loss became part of the comedy routine with Jack Benny ribbing ‘Rochester’ on air during The Jack Benny Program.  The newspapers and other comedians also poked fun at Anderson.  During 1943, there were more than 200 newspaper stories in the United States and Canada about Burnt Cork’s loss in the Kentucky Derby. Anderson continued to race Burnt Cork until the horse died in July of 1944 [of a natural cause].”

Some of the criticism, perhaps most, that Mr. Anderson received for running Burnt Cork in the Kentucky Derby was almost certainly racially motivated in that other owners had previously entered manifestly unqualified horses without such media carping.  In fact, the practice of owners running hopeless longshots in the Derby continued to be commonplace until 2012, when Churchill Downs instituted a qualifying point system for the 20-horse field.

Two other African Americans of show business fame would someday own horses in the Kentucky Derby.  In 1992, rapper M. C. Hammer’s Dance Floor finished third and in 1994 Motown founder Berry Gordy’s Powis Castle came in eighth.  But the pioneer in breaking the color barrier was Eddie “Rochester” Anderson…and pioneers usually get arrows shot their way.

The inscription on the Anderson monument in Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles says simply “Loving Husband and Father Eddie (Rochester).” A very humble epitaph for a resolute man who did so much to pave the way for African Americans in both network radio/TV and sports.

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