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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Kentucky Derby Day Special: Russia has a Connection

In Black Maestro, Joe Drape meticulously brings to life the drama, adventures, romances, and heartbreaks of an unlikely participant in the greatest historical events of the twentieth century. It is a breathtaking narrative that takes you from pastoral Kentucky to Mob-controlled Chicago, from the horse country of Poland to the chaos of Red Square, and from freewheeling Paris to the hard-luck American South of the Depression. It is also a story that returns Jimmy Winkfield to his rightful place as an original American hero.

In 1919, at the age of thirty-seven, as Bolshevik cannon fire thundered above, the already epic life of Jimmy Winkfield turned into an odyssey. With a ragtag band of Russian nobility and Polish soldiers, the son of a black sharecropper from Chilesburg, Kentucky, was entrusted with saving more than 250 of the most royal but fragile thoroughbreds left in crumbling Csarist Russia. They trekked 1,100 miles from Odessa to Warsaw for nearly three months amid the bloodiest part of Russian Revolution, surviving gunfire and starvation.

Winkfield had arrived in the Land of the Czars fifteen years earlier, after Jim Crow laws ran him out of his beloved Kentucky bluegrass despite the fact that his preternatural skills as a jockey had twice taken him to the winners' circle of America's most famous race, the Kentucky Derby, in 1901 and 1902. The same combination of dignity and street smarts that had endeared Winkfield to outlaws such as Frank James and legendary gamblers such as Big Ed Corrigan and Pittsburgh Phil in early-twentieth-century America, however, made him the toast of the Russian Empire.

Winkfield spoke Russian and Polish fluently, lived in Moscow's most luxurious hotel, employed a white valet, and earned the nickname "Black Maestro" by winning the most prestigious horse races through eastern Europe. As World War I raged, Winkfield -- barely five feet tall and one hundred pounds -- waltzed across ballrooms alongside Czar Nicholas, seduced White Russian beauties, and was the trusted rider and friend for two of the richest oilmen in the world.
While fate had dealt Winkfield an extraordinary hand by taking him from racism to Russia, it was hardly through with him. He delivered the thoroughbred horses safely to Warsaw and earned a revered place in Polish history, but at the cost of his family and fortune. Winkfield rebuilt his life in Paris, first as a jockey, then as a successful trainer, only to endure the death of a son and the tragic madness of the true love of his life. In 1941, after Nazi troops requisitioned his estate and stables in the French countryside, Winkfield returned to America, where his social status, as a black man, had hardly changed: he was a second-class citizen who could not walk through a front door.

Jimmy Winkfield not only persevered but prospered by turning broken-down thoroughbreds into money-making racehorses on the same southern circuit that had chased him from America forty years earlier.

Black Maestro is the incredible story of an ordinary man who lived a life beyond his dreams.

ISBN13: 9780060537296; ISBN: 0060537299; Imprint: William Morrow; On Sale: 04/25/2006; Format: Hardcover; Trimsize: 6 x 9; Pages: 288; $24.95

Hmmm . . . seems like dark-skinned folks were better off in Tsarist Russia than they are today.

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