LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) â€” Marlon St. Julien was awakened from a nap by a phone call that lasted only a few minutes but spanned 79 years of Kentucky Derby history.
The caller, a reporter, informed him that he will be the first black jockey since 1921 to ride in the world's most famous horse race.
``I just want to be considered as one of the best riders in the country, whether black, white, purple, blue or brown,'' he said Thursday while resting between races in the Churchill Downs jockeys' room. ``I also want to leave the game with a lot of respect and say I accomplished a lot in my career.''
St. Julien will ride Curule, a 50-1 long shot who earned a spot in the 19-horse field Wednesday with the defection of Harlan Traveler. The horse is owned by Godolphin Racing, which represents two sheiks who are members of Dubai's ruling family.
``I get the chills watching it on TV, so I'll get a lot more goosebumps coming out there,'' the 28-year-old St. Julien said. ``I'm sure it'll be a feeling of a lifetime.''
St. Julien, from Lafayette, La., became interested in racing through three uncles who had horses when he was young. Five-foot-4 and 111 pounds, he rode in his first race at 17 and won for the first time in 1989.
The only discouragement St. Julien said he heard was from other blacks in his hometown. They told him he would never succeed in the predominantly white sport.
``I proved them all wrong,'' he said.
Black jockeys dominated the early years of the Kentucky Derby. Thirteen of the 15 riders in the first Derby in 1875 were black, and blacks won 15 of the Derby's first 28 runnings.
Isaac Murphy was the most successful, becoming the first to win three Derbies and first to win in consecutive years (1884, 1890 and 1891).
James Winkfield was the last black jockey to win the Derby, riding consecutive champions in 1901-02. The last black jockey in the race, Henry King, finished 10th aboard 81-1 long-shot Planet.
By the early 1900s, the presence of black riders and trainers in the Derby began decreasing, largely due to social and economic pressures that prompted migrations from farms to Northern cities and resentment from the white racing community.
Nowadays, there aren't many black exercise riders and that's how many successful jockeys start, said Cot Campbell, co-owner of Derby horses Impeachment and Trippi.
He said he doesn't believe discrimination has been an issue for St. Julien, who rode a winner for Campbell last Sunday at Churchill Downs.
``He thinks he's hot and he is,'' said Campbell, who is white. ``He's in the paddock tipping his hat and kissing the ladies.''
The jockey's agent, Randy Romero, a fellow Louisianan who is also white, is familiar with the negativity St. Julien faced in his home state.
``They never did give him a chance down home, the chance that he deserved because he's a different color,'' he said. ``Maybe that was a little help to get him started.''
Growing up, St. Julien knew a couple of other black riders who left an impression on him.
``I noticed some of them had it in their mind that because they were black they couldn't do this or that,'' he said. ``I never put it in my mind that way.''
St. Julien won his first career riding title in 1997 at Lone Star Park in Texas with 78 winners and set a season record with earnings of more than $1.7 million. Last year, he won 165 races and his mounts earned more than $5.1 million, his best year.
St. Julien aspires to become one of the nation's top riders and win Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races.
``I think we're here to accomplish something, not just to be here,'' he said. ``I was put here to be a race rider and I'm going to be the best that I can be.''
After the Churchill meeting ends in July, St. Julien plans to head to the major meets at Belmont and Saratoga. Next winter, he'll ride in Florida.
``I think I'm an excellent rider,'' he said, ``and if someone doesn't want to ride me because I'm black, they're really missing out on a big chance of me getting a win for them.''