11/12/2004 12:00AM

Bio tells tales of race, racing

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NEW YORK - Thirty years after his death, and a mere 102 years after becoming the last black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, Jimmy Winkfield is finally getting his due. He was posthumously inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in August, and the featured race Jan. 17 at Aqueduct on the Martin Luther King holiday will be the first running of the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes.

Both of those belated honors are owed largely to the efforts of Ed Hotaling, the racing historian who lobbied the Hall of Fame on Winkfield's behalf as he completed research for the book "Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield," published last week by McGraw-Hill. The biography is not particularly breezy reading but is an impressive and important piece of scholarship whose subject matter is nearly irresistible.

Born eight miles from Lexington, Ky., in 1880, the youngest of 17 children, Winkfield came of age at the end of the era when black jockeys dominated the sport. Winkfield followed Isaac Murphy as only the second rider to win the Kentucky Derby in consecutive years, taking the 1901-02 editions with His Eminence and Allan-a-Dale. (The back-to-back Derby feat has since been matched only by Ron Turcotte in 1972-73 and Eddie Delahoussaye in 1982-83.)

By 1906, however, Winkfield was on a steamer to Europe, driven out of American racing by declining track economics and a growing race war between white and black riders. Puritanism was sweeping the country and would close all but 25 of the nation's 314 tracks by 1908. It was, however, a time of both racial tolerance and racing prosperity in Eastern Europe. The Warsaw Derby and All-Russian Derby offered twice the purse money of the Epsom and Kentucky versions, and Winkfield became the dominant rider on those rich circuits.

Winkfield spent most of the next 35 years in Europe, and much of this book is a story of the continent's history during that time. He escapes the Russian Revolution as part of a 260-horse caravan that flees from Odessa to Warsaw on foot; settles in Paris in the 1920's; retires from riding in 1930 after winning more than 2,600 races and begins training at Maisons-Laffitte; and returns home in 1941, evacuated by the Red Cross after the Nazis seize his land and stable. Arriving in New York with $9, the two-time Derby winner jackhammered sidewalks in Queens for the Works Progress Administration, returned to horses when he got a job as a groom in Aiken the following year, then eventually returned to France again. Along the way, he had five children by four different women.

Much of the pleasure of this book is its panoramic scope and the people we meet along the unique arc of Winkfield's career: Tolstoy, Marconi, Count Zeppelin, Sigmund Freud, Rasputin, Herbert Hoover, Isadora Duncan, the Aga Khan, Josephine Baker, Herbert Hoover, Johnny Weissmuller, Charles Lindbergh.

Yet these detours are also the book's greatest pitfall. Hotaling never met a detail that he didn't like. There are 521 footnotes among the book's 294 pages, and digressions on everything from the inventory of shops in St. Petersburg to the architecture of Pennsylvania Station and Hitler's final days. While often quirky and engaging, their relation to Winkfield is speculative and tenuous at best and makes this a book best swallowed in small portions.

The racing side of the book comes up short. We never get a good sense of what skills or ideas distinguished Winkfield from his riding or training contemporaries, and numerous uninteresting races are recounted in great detail. Hotaling, who also wrote the book "The Great Black Jockeys," is much better at history and sociology. Some of his best material involves race and journalism during Winkfield's American riding days, a time when sportswriters quoted black riders in false dialects and even The New York Times felt free to denigrate one jockey as "a muckle-headed negro."

Winkfield was rediscovered from obscurity in a famous 1959 Sports Illustrated article where he was somewhat fanciful in his life story. Hotaling meticulously reconstructs the real facts here with the help of both the historical record and through interviews with family members. The year following the Sports Illustrated article, Winkfield was invited to receive an award at the National Turf Writers Association's banquet at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, and in one of the book's best passages, Hotaling recreates the poignant scene where Winkfield is initially not allowed to enter the hotel through the front door.

While "Wink" is sometimes more of an unwieldy dissertation than a sculpted narrative, it is ultimately a success for its scholarship and for preserving the record of an unusual and fascinating life and chapter in racing history.