In his youth, Rodney Van Johnson had a need for speed. That ultimately led to him competing as a sprinter and high jumper at the University of Cincinnati.
Throughout his life, Van Johnson — an actor best known for having appeared in several soap operas, including “The Young and the Restless” and, most recently, “The Bold and the Beautiful” — also felt an affection for horses he really couldn’t explain.
“I loved watching horses, the power they have,” Van Johnson says. “... The smell of horses, I like being around the smell of horses. I just never knew why.”
Some two decades ago, Van Johnson learned why he seems to have “horses” in his blood. Through research on family history undertaken by his mother, Ruth Johnson-Watts, the actor learned that an ancestor holds an iconic distinction in North American Thoroughbred horse racing.
Van Johnson’s great-great grandfather was Oliver Lewis — the jockey who won the first Kentucky Derby in 1875 aboard Aristides.
“It was unknown family history,” Van Johnson says.
This weekend, Lewis will be among 23 sports figures in the second induction class of the Lexington African-American Sports Hall of Fame. Isaac Murphy, the three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey who is generally considered the greatest North American jockey of the 19th century, will also be inducted.
Van Johnson, 62, plans to be in attendance Saturday night at Central Bank Center to see his great-great grandfather, who died in 1924, posthumously honored in the county of his birth and death.
Oliver Lewis had been born in Fayette County in 1856. He was 19 years old when he began the first Kentucky Derby aboard Aristides, a smallish chestnut colt owned by H.P. McGrath.
There were 15 horses who contested the first Kentucky Derby. Of the 15 jockeys in the race, 13 were Black and the other two were British.
According to lore, Aristides and, therefore, Lewis, were in the first Derby to serve as “rabbits” for the horse Chesapeake. The latter was the more-touted half of what was a two-horse, McGrath-owned entry in the Kentucky Derby.
However, as the race turned for home, it was Aristides dueling at the front for the lead; Chesapeake was deep in the field and fading. According to legend, McGrath had positioned himself at the head of the stretch and therefore was in position to give Lewis a signal indicating the jockey was to go for the win.
In response, Lewis loosened his hold on Aristides’ bridle and the horse held off Volcano to win the very first Kentucky Derby. Ansel Williamson, a prominent horse trainer who was Black, trained the initial Derby winner.
Aristides’ winning time, 2:37.75, was then the North American record for a mile-and-a-half race (the distance at which the first Kentucky Derby was contested).
“It’s a great story. Pretty amazing,” Van Johnson says. “I am looking at writing a documentary and a lot of different things on (the 1875 Kentucky Derby). I can only imagine how McGrath must have felt.”
The triumph by Oliver Lewis in 1875 launched a period in which Black jockeys were the winners in 15 of the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby. Subsequently, however, racism played a role in pushing Black jockeys out of Thoroughbred racing in the U.S. Jimmy Winkfield aboard Alan-a-Dale in 1902 is the most recent Black jockey to win the Derby.
“Like everything, the African-American has always been pushed back and pushed out,” Van Johnson says of the fate of the Black jockeys. “But the history is there. You can’t rewrite the history.”
Growing up in a religious family, Van Johnson says he appreciated the theatrical aspects of church. However, rather than become a preacher or song leader, he ultimately chose to channel his proclivity for performing into an acting career.
Van Johnson is best known for his work in soap operas. He played Trey Stark on CBS’s “The Young and the Restless;” T.C. Russell on NBC’s “Passions;” Sebastian DuPre on ABC’s “Port Charles;” and, most recently, has appeared as an attorney, Russell, on “The Bold and the Beautiful” on CBS.
After we spoke, Van Johnson was preparing to join a picket line as part of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists’ strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
After winning the first Kentucky Derby, Oliver Lewis never rode in another.
He moved to Cincinnati, married and had six children. Lewis died in 1924 and is buried in Lexington.
Not a lot is known about his post-racing life, although Van Johnson says there is a reason for that.
One rationale for Lewis to give up riding in races, Van Johnson said, is that he had found a more-lucrative, less-dangerous way to profit off of horse racing: He became a bookmaker.
“My great-great grandfather was the first DraftKings,” Van Johnson says, referencing the sports betting company. “I’ve learned so much about the jockey side (of Lewis’ life). Still learning about the bookie side of it because the bookie side pretty much earned a living for him.”
On Saturday night, it is the greatest achievement of “the jockey side” of Oliver Lewis’ life that is being honored with a Hall of Fame induction.
“It’s a good feeling to have that type of lineage in your bloodline,” Rodney Van Johnson says.
The 23 sports figures who will be inducted into the Lexington African-American Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday night:
▪ George Adams
▪ Julius Berry
▪ Derek Bryant
▪ Cornell Burbage
▪ Don Byars
▪ Leroy Byrd
▪ Leslie Nichols Carter
▪ Chris Chenault
▪ Bebe Croley
▪ Melvin Cunningham
▪ Juanita Drake
▪ Victoria Gay
▪ Brianna Green
▪ Lou Johnson
▪ Oliver Lewis
▪ Charles Livisay
▪ Isaac Murphy
▪ Norman Passmore
▪ Louis Stout
▪ Melvin Turpin
▪ Dawn Duncan Walters
▪ Bethel Ward
▪ Tony Wilson