Marshall Lilly: Race Horse Man

Sep 15th 2017 08:05 pm |

For the entire ten year existence of this site, I have frequently used this photograph of the racehorse Colin ridden by an African American man in a derby hat. That man, Marshall Lilly, has been seen often and only occasionally mentioned here. Little has been written of Lilly anywhere in spite of a long career working in close proximity to some of the greatest horses in American racing. This post is an attempt to remedy that oversight and, hopefully, shed light on a man who deserves to be remembered.

On November 24th 1975, the Bloodhorse published an article authored by Kent Hollingsworth that provided the only expansive overview on the life of the African American exercise rider Marshall Lilly.

Published weeks after Lilly’s death on November 8th, the headline of the article aptly read “A Man Who Knew Champions.” It opened with a simple list of racehorses that included names of legendary runners: Sysonby, Peter Pan, Colin, Celt, Frizette, Maskette, Whisk Broom II, Regret, John P. Grier, Upset, Mother Goose, Whichone, Equipoise, and Twenty Grand. As the primary exercise rider for one of America’s greatest trainers and two elite stables of his era, Lilly rode all of these horses and countless others whose names have faded with time.

Lilly was born in Lexington, Kentucky on January 3rd 1885. His father was a horseman who worked for prominent Kentucky breeder (and Union sympathizer) James A. Grinstead. In 1897, at the age of 12, Lilly followed his father into racing as a groom for the African American trainer and owner Edward Dudley Brown, known throughout the racing world as “Brown Dick.” Working with Brown in the 1890s, meant moving among the elite circles in racing. Brown raced his horses primarily in Kentucky and Chicago but would travel to New York when he had horses he could sell to the wealthy eastern owners.

In 1893, Brown bought a mare in foal for $1200 in Kentucky. Two years later, the foal, now running with the name Ben Brush, won his first five races. Brown then took Ben Brush to New York and sold him to Mike Dwyer for $25,000. Ben Brush would win twenty-five of forty career races including the 1896 Kentucky Derby. In 1897, Brown followed a similar formula and sold the 2-year old Plaudit to John Madden. Plaudit won the 1898 Kentucky Derby.

In the fall of 1901, this time with Lilly along to assist the stable, Brown went back to New York and sold another 2-year-old colt to Madden. The colt named Pentecost finished second in the 1902 Suburban but never won a major stake. Brown returned to Kentucky but Lilly stayed. He would live the rest of his life on the east coast.

Lilly said of the fateful trip: “There I was in New York, and [Brown] didn’t have any horses left, so I was looking around and Mr. James Rowe asked me to come work for him.” When he landed a job with Rowe, he was told by another stable hand: “You’d be crazy to go to work for that man, he is the toughest man on the race track.” Lilly replied, “As long as he pays me, I’ll work for him.”

Lilly worked for Rowe at owner Jack Keene’s breeding and training facility in Brookdale New Jersey and followed the stable around the New York racing circuit. He had exercised horses for Brown so he quickly grew frustrated with his status as a groom. Lilly nearly returned to Kentucky to learn a trade but one day he caught a break. Rowe called him to the track to work an unruly horse at Sheepshead Bay and Lilly masterfully handled the assignment.

Lilly implied later that Rowe called for him because he was considered expendable and he speculated with a laugh that Rowe wanted to ‘get him killed.’ He proved a capable exercise rider and grew to become a great one. Not long after proving his mettle on the testy horse at Sheepshead, he was working all of Mr. Rowe’s good horses.

Prior to the New York gambling ban that nearly doomed horse racing in the state, Lilly worked for Rowe and Jack Keene when they had a slew of great horses like Sysonby, Delhi, Court Dress, Peter Pan, Maskette, Ballot, and Sweep. Rowe had his last great horse with Keene just prior to the ban. The mighty Colin capped off an incredible career in 1908 with sixteen races without a defeat. Colin’s fame brought Lilly attention that he had never experienced before.

A 1908 article in the Evening Worldfeatured on this site in 2011 — about a day in the life of Colin and Celt includes, perhaps, the earliest detailed mention in print of Mr. Lilly:

“Before big races or for special workouts Marshall Lilly, a colored boy, rides Colin and Celt. Mr. Rowe says he is the finest judge of pace he ever saw and would be a great jockey were he not too heavy. He has been with the Keene stable for years.”

When the New York gambling ban started in 1911, all significant thoroughbred racing stopped in the state and did not return until 1913. Jack Keene left racing in 1911 and that same year Rowe began working for Harry Payne Whitney. Rowe and Lilly worked for Whitney for nearly two decades.

Lilly’s one break from Rowe came when New York racing went dark. He relocated to England with a stable of H.P. Whitney’s horses as a “trial jock” — the term used in England for exercise riders — under trainer Jack Joyner. Lilly said Joyner wasn’t a “good horseman like Rowe” and was a “very nervous man…who would ball you out in a second.”

Whisk Broom was among the Whitney contingent he worked in Europe. When New York racing started again in 1913, Whisk Broom returned to New York along with Lilly who started back working for Rowe. Whisk Broom — now trained by Rowe — would become the first runner to sweep the New York Handicap triple comprising the Metropolitan, Brooklyn, and Suburban. In the Suburban, his final career race, he set the ‘world record’ for 1 1/4, breaking the prior record by three seconds.

In 1915, Lilly exercised the Whitney owned and Rowe trained Regret, the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby. Four years later, in 1919, the tandem of Whitney, Rowe, and Lilly put the only loss on Man o’ War’s career resume when Upset won that year’s Sanford at Saratoga. The trio teamed to win their last Kentucky Derby together with Whiskery in 1927. In 1928, Whitney won the Preakness with Victorian, a win credited to Rowe’s son Jimmy Rowe Jr.

The legendary trainer died in 1929. What followed was a difficult three years for Marshall Lilly. Respect for those who replaced his long time boss paled in comparison with what he had for the elder Rowe. In a span of three years, three different head trainers attempted to replace Rowe including his son.

In 1930, H.P. Whitney died and operation of the stable moved to his son C. V. “Sonny” Whitney and sister-in-law Helen Hay Whitney. In 1931, four months after the Whitney stables won the Kentucky Derby with Twenty Grand, Jimmy Rowe Jr. died of a heart attack at the young age of 42.

Lilly said Rowe Jr. was “a fine young man” — he then paused and added — “of course, his father was great” tastefully delineating the skills of the father with that of his son. Rowe Sr’s knowledge and history commanded respect from employees who worked for him and owners he worked for but that dynamic changed after he died. Lilly recalled that after Rowe Sr. passed, C.V. Whitney micromanaged his stable, even though, as Lilly makes clear, he didn’t know much about training horses.

On October 28th 1931, about a week after Rowe Jr. died, the Associated Press reported the following:

“Marshall Lilly, rated as the turf’s outstanding exercise ride, today was promoted to the position of assistant trainer of Mrs. Payne Whitney’s Greentree Stable…William Brennan, assistant trainer under Rowe, was appointed head trainer.”

In taking the position of an assistant trainer, he unofficially retired from exercise riding. His name would appear sporadically in newspapers connected with the second string of Whitney horses for the next eighteen years.

Marshall Lilly never had the chance to train the types of horses he expertly rode as an exercise rider. The reason is clear: Beginning in the 1910s, powerful and wealthy owners, the people who owned the best horses, did not employ African American as trainers and jockeys. Blacks, who long held positions of prominence in the sport, were relegated to positions out of the spotlight. Lilly retired from the racetrack in 1949 while still employed by the Whitney family as an assistant trainer

Lilly’s thoughts about his career trajectory remain unknown and might always remain unknown. When interviewed in 1975, he spoke with pride and intimate knowledge about the great horses he exercised but Joe Hirsch did not ask him why, with a half century in the game, he never rose above the position of an assistant trainer. Maybe both Lilly and Hirsch knew the answer. Maybe it was a question whose answer was understood by two men who knew the history of horse racing and America in the 20th century.

Is it possible that a skilled horseman who worked for the greatest trainer of his era for nearly thirty years and twenty more as an assistant trainer felt no resentment that he never had a chance to train elite horses or work as a head trainer? I think the answer to that one is understood too.


I leaned heavily on two sources for this article that I recently discovered — all quotes from Lilly come from one of the following:

Kent Hollingsworth, “A Man Who Knew Champions,” Bloodhorse, 24 November 1975. Special thanks to Becky Ryder from the Keeneland Library for making me aware of this article AND sending me a copy.

An interview with Marshall Lilly conducted by Joe Hirsch on June 7th 1975 is archived at the Louis B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky. Special thanks to the staff there who sent me an audio copy of the interview. I have listened to it multiple times in the last few months. It is an invaluable source and a treasure.

For context and background, I used the chapter on James Rowe in Ed Bowen’s excellent Masters of the Turf: Ten Trainers Who Dominated Horse Racing’s Golden Age

Katherine C. Mooney’s outstanding book Race Horse Men inspired the title to this article. Mooney’s book is essential reading for racing historians.

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in African American jockeys,Colins Ghost Archive of Thoroughbred Racing History,Marshall Lilly

7 Responses to “Marshall Lilly: Race Horse Man”

  1. Ken Wiener says:

    A wonderful article. Thanks for sharing it with us. (In the notes you must mean 1975, not 1945, for the Hirsch interview.)

  2. Ron Micetic says:

    Another masterful ride through horse racing history. Thanks Kevin.

  3. Susan Prince says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article! And your dedication to uncovering stories about racing’s rich and interesting history.

  4. Kevin,

    I am an artist and have read anything and everything about horses since I was 6 years old (63 years ago). I started drawing them and never stopped, and now, I have to tell you that Colin was an exceptionally exciting horse to me. I very much appreciate you writing about Mr. Lilly as I have looked at his picture on Colin many times and wondered who he was.

    If you go to my website, I did a sterling silver portrait of
    Man o’ War, and I also work in Arabians.

    My career is almost over and I hope that yours goes on for many decades writing and remembering the history of racing. Maybe someday you can put what you know together and publish a book, or write a screen play. That would be really challenging and very rewarding. I hope I will see it. Thank you for your article.



  5. Warren Eves says:

    Another great article. I truly appreciate this sort of thing because in today’s world of accolades, the truly greats of the past are overlooked and forgotten.

    My book “Hold All Tickets” which has been in the can for several years, was taken to a number of literary agents. They wanted to fictionalize it. I said no. Now, with the help of a friend, we may be able to post all 23 chapters on the net for free. I mention this because factual reporting of historical happenings in the world of horse racing is hard to find. For instance, I have a chapter on what actually happened the last day my late friend Joe Hernandez was at the microphone at Santa Anita. Terry Gilligan, my longtime friend, played a part in what came down. It’s a significant part of horse racing history that should be etched in indelible fashion. That’s what I did when I sat down and got so many historical happenings on paper.

  6. larry outlaw says:

    Really enjoy reading all the old stories about racing, wish I would have read them back when I first started going to the races in 1966. I read so much now, my favorite book was Man O` War by Dorothy Oar. Horse racing sure has changed over the years, its a different ballgame today that`s for sure, everything is about speed, thanks for your stories of the great past in horse racing, keep them coming.