Black History Month Special: Jess “Long Shot” Conley & Oakland Trotting Park
Oakland Trotting Park was the host to many noteworthy Black jockeys around the turn of the 20th century. One of them was Jess “Long Shot” Conley who earned his moniker by riding horses with long odds to victory. He also earned a reputation for having a short fuse and for frequent gambling that ultimately led to his downfall.
Conley’s racing career in this venue lasted from 1897 until 1902. During this period Conley‘s name frequently appeared in local newspapers when he won or placed in a horse race. Also his name appeared in the press when he was involved in physical and verbal altercations.
Edward Wiard Builds Shell Mound & Oakland Trotting Park
Edward Wiard was born in New Haven, Connecticut 1815. As a young man, Wiard worked as a steamboat engineer. In 1850 he answered the call of gold and immigrated to California.
After prospecting for gold in Mariposa County, he purchased a 150 acre tract of land in 1858 in an unincorporated area north of Oakland. In the 1870s Wiard built the Oakland Trotting Park and Shell Mound Park.
Opened in 1871, the Trotting Park was a one-mile oval shaped course located north of Park Avenue and west of San Pablo Avenue. Shell Mound Park, an amusement park, opened in 1876 and was located west of the railroad tracks adjacent to the Bay.
For 25 years the Oakland Trotting Park featured harness racing, a form of horse racing in which a horse pulls a light two-wheeled vehicle called a “sulky.”
Wiard died in 1886 and Oakland Trotting Park and Shell Mound Park were purchased by Judge James Mee of San Francisco. Trotting Park was then leased to Thomas Williams who invested in the park by resurfacing the track and building a new grandstand.
The track was renamed the New California Jockey Club. Trotting races were discontinued and the new track featured thoroughbred horse racing with jockeys in the saddle. The renovated track reopened on October 24, 1896.
The rebuilt racetrack employed a large number of African Americans to train and care for the horses. Many of them were from Kentucky, a state with a long history of raising and racing horses. Over the years many famous African American jockeys raced at the Emeryville Track, including Willie Simms, Alonzo Clayton, Felix Carr, and Jess “Long Shot” Conley.
Oakland Annexation Threat
After incorporating in 1854, The City of Oakland began annexing nearby settlements and was targeting the tract containing the two parks. There was considerable opposition to racetrack gambling within the existing Oakland community.
Williams wanted to protect his investment so he and other racetrack directors orchestrated the incorporation of “Emeryville.” Joseph Stickney Emery owned a 185-acre tract just south of Wiard’s.
A petition proposing the creation of a town was submitted to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. The board voted in favor of allowing residents living within the boundaries to vote for incorporation. In addition to the issue of incorporation, the ballot offered voters two slates of candidates. If incorporation carried, the new town would have an elected government.
The election was held on December 2, 1896. Residents voted 150 to 27 in favor of incorporation. W.H. Christie, the candidate with the most votes, became “Emeryville’s” first mayor, a position he held for over three decades.
Conley’s Career Begins to Blossom in Kentucky
Born about 1870, possibly in Chicago, Jess Conley started his career as a jockey in 1896 at the Harlem Race Track 5 near Chicago.
Conley was hired by trainer Crit Davis to ride his stable of horses. Conley had trouble getting off to a good start. This was before the invention of the starting gate where a man stood at the line with a flag. Davis did not think Conley had any future as a jockey and decided to let him go.
In 1897 at the age of 27, Conley was hired by W. F. Schulte to ride his stable of horses at the Latonia Race Track in Kentucky. At Latonia Conley piloted the horse Alleviate to a string of victories. He soon achieved recognition as an exceptional jockey in this venue.
In mid-November, 1897 Conley returned to Chicago, where he continued to dominate at the Lakeside Track. After spending a few days racing in this venue, Conley took the train west to Oakland. The Emeryville Track opened for the racing season on November 15, 1897.
Conley Earns Moniker at Emeryville Track
November 23, 1897 was the first day Conley rode at the Emeryville Track riding Zamar. The next day the S.F. Call had the first mentioned of his name. “Conley, who, rode Honig’s sprinter (Zamar) yesterday, was one of the ‘finds’ of the past season around the Chicago tracks. He landed a number of longshots. His name would convey the impression that he came from the Emerald Isle (Ireland), but he did not. He is a colored lad.”
Two days later, on November 25, before an immense crowd, Conley, astride Harry Thobur, odds of 50 to 1, a horse no one thought had a chance of winning, hustled the steed “along in exhilarating manner,” and came in second place. From this moment on the press referred to him as “Long Shot” Conley, for his uncanny ability to ride a dark horse to victory.
Conley was again praised by the S.F. Call on November 27:
“Long Shot Conley has made a pronounced hit with race goers. His style is … vigorous and lasting, unwilling to acknowledge defeat.”
The Emeryville Track and the Ingleside Track in San Francisco had alternate schedules so they didn’t conflict with each other. The Emeryville Track would stay open for two weeks and then close. Then the Ingleside Track would open for the next two weeks and close, and so on. Jess Conley raced at both tracks.
Success Leads to Jealousy, Collusion by White Jockeys
Conley had only raced in the Bay Area for two weeks when he ran into trouble. Conley’s success at the Emeryville Track and Ingleside created resentment on the part of the white jockeys. They colluded to slow him down by bumping up against his horse or boxing him in. In 1897, The S.F. Call reported this story with the headline “Conley in Need of Protection. The Colored Rider Bumped and Cut Off on Every Possible Occasion.”
The article reads:
“ … a combination has been formed among the white boys to down Conley whenever opportunity offers and for effectiveness its efforts have been highly gratifying. Well authenticated rumors have been in circulation for a week or more that Conley‘s popularity had aroused a jealous feeling among his comrades of a lighter caste and that they had taken measures to cause his winning percentage to assume a consumptive hue.” … “Conley came to California a stranger, but by his earnest efforts to win whether on the back of an outsider or astride a favorite at once installed him a favorite with the public. He is a colored boy, but in racing the color line has never been drawn, and he is entitled to the same treatment as his white colleagues.”
Conley complained to the track officials about the conspiracy to interfere with the progress of his horse. The officials promised to investigate. Later one of the white jockeys, “Skeets” Martin was fined $50 for colliding with Conley‘s horse.
1898: Conley Criticized, Suspended
Conley’s success also made him a target of the press and track officials. When Conley did not win or place, as some thought he should, he was accused of deliberately holding back his mount, suggesting he may be taking bribes, according to the S.F. Call, January 29, 1898.
“Conley is no longer worshipped as the idol of purity. On his arrival here his admirers were wont to say that a barrel of Klondike nuggets would not tempt the colored wonder. Now, on several sides complaints are heard of poor rides, which are blamed to inactivity on the part of “Longshot.” The game (horse racing) is rotten to the core, but it is to be hoped that Conley has not met the tempter and fallen. He can ride at a very useful weight and has a brilliant future before him.”
Track officials also accused Conley of swerving his mount on the track so as to endanger other jockeys. In January, 1898 he was suspended for a week for this violation. The S.F. Call reporter did not think the suspension was justified.
“If the colored lad turns his neck while on the road to the wire he is rewarded with a fine. There is sense and justice in everything, and there is no just reason why it should not be dealt out to Conley in the same proportion as it is to the balance of the riders.”
Conley vs. Tod Sloan
On February 10, 1898 track star and future racing hall of famer Tod Sloan raced against Conley at the Emeryville Track. In the first race, Sloan rode Wawona, the favorite at 2 to 1 odds, in a mile and a furlong run. Conley’s horse, Our Climate, had 30 to 1 odds of winning. Tod’s horse got off to a late start at the post. Conley shot ahead and crossed the finish line a winner. The S.F. Call account reads:
“Tod was unfortunate in getting his mount away from the post last of the bunch, and, being compelled to travel the overland (outside) route most of the way, was led past the judges over two lengths by the 30 to 1 shot, Our Climate, with Conley in the saddle.” According to the Call, “the colored lad was vociferously cheered as he returned to the stand.”
Conley and Sloan competed again in the last race. Tod‘s horse, May W., was again the favorite, the horse with the best chance of winning. Conley rode a big bay, Libertine The other horses in the race were Tea Rose, Montgomery and Peixotto. Tod led on the back stretch, but Conley “came with a rush,” and passed Sloan near the finish line and won by almost a length. After the race a big smile appeared on Conley’s face that “lengthened until it resembled the main entrance to a circus tent.”
After his defeat of Sloan, Conley’s fame spread across the country. On February 21, 1898 the Kansas City Journal ran an article in recognition of Conley‘s remarkable success as a jockey in California.
“Then the Sloan fetish arrived on the (Pacific) slope … Sloan came, rode, and was conquered by Conley … Conley’s work at Latonia last fall was so superior to the other boys‘ riding there that it is surprising he had to again prove his ability at the Frisco tracks before securing the recognition which was justly due him. He has had to contend with cliqism and favoritism at Ingleside and Oakland alike, but his ability to sit in the saddle, his utter fearlessness, his quick perception of the shortest route to the winning post, and his undoubted honesty have combined to gain him the confidence of the horse owners, and today he ranks third in the list of winning jockeys of the California tracks. Conley will ride for W. F. Schulte this season.”
Kentucky Derby Appearances
Conley also had a busy year. In May, 1898 Conley entered the Kentucky Derby held at Churchill Downs, a mile and a quarter race for three-year olds. Conley’s mount, Han d’Or, owned by G. A. Singerly, came in fourth place, two lengths behind the winner. Willie Simms, another Black jockey, rode the winning horse, Plaudit, crossing the finish line in 2:09.
In September, 1898 Conley lived up to his nickname, riding two horses with long odds to victory on the same day at the Newport Racetrack in Kentucky. The first race, with Conley aboard Albert Vale, with odds of 7 to 1, won the six and a half furlongs race in 1:25 1/4. Conley also won the fifth race, astride Bannie, a distance of five furlongs in 1:05 1/4.
“Long Shot” Conley also entered the 1899 Kentucky Derby. The race was held on May 4 with a field of five horses. Conley’s horse, Mazo, was owned by John E. Madden. The mile and quarter race was won by F. Taral aboard Manuel. Conley came in third place, 1 and 1/2 lengths behind the winner. Conley received a purse of $300 for his third place position.
1899: Back to Emeryville: Suspension & “Foul Riding”
Conley returned to the Bay Area in 1899 and continued to race at the Emeryville Track. On November 31, 1899, before a throng of 9,000, Conley won the Paxton Handicap. The S.F. Call reported: “ ‘Longshot’ Conley’s followers at last had their patience and fortitude rewarded, for the colored chap piloted the dainty Rosormonde to victory in the Paxton handicap over one mile and a furlongs.”
In January, 1900 Conley was suspended for 30 days for bumping into another horse. While aboard Sig Levy, Conley collided again and again with Rathgar for a distance of over 200 yards. The officials accused him of “foul riding.”
The suspension was reduced to only two weeks. Conley was soon back in the saddle, and on Jan. 29 in the fifth race at the Emeryville track “Long Shot” crossed the finish line a winner on Colonel Root, a 30 to 1 long shot.
1901: Conley Turns Hostile
When Conley started racing in 1897, he was described by the press as “modest,” without having a “big head” or a sense of entitlement. When he was interviewed by the Call a year later, he seemed confident but not arrogant or combative. By 1901 his attitude had changed. After numerous victories on forgotten tracks, after being suspended for infractions, harassed on the track by white jockeys, under unrelenting pressure to win, Conley by 1901 had become hostile, angry, quarrelsome, and violent.
From January to June, 1901 Conley’s name appeared in local newspapers several times, twice for committing acts of violence. Like many other jockeys, Conley frequented saloons and pool halls between races where he drank, played poker, and pool.
Within the gambling and saloon subculture, it was common for a misunderstanding or an argument to escalate into a fight. Conley was usually armed with a knife and a handgun for protection. Conley had a short temper that sometimes got him in trouble.
Fight at the Kearny Street Saloon
On the night of January 21, 1901, Conley was drinking in a saloon on Kearny Street in San Francisco. Conley got into an argument with a pool player over who should pay for the drinks. Conley pulled out a knife and slashed his face.
Conley was arrested and charged with “assault with a deadly weapon.” Conley claimed he acted in self-defense. Conley posted $100 bail and was released from jail. In February, 1901 Conley appeared before the Superior Court. We don’t know how the case was resolved, but it does not appear the he served time in jail.
On May 12, 1901, Long Shot was playing poker at Bayer’s saloon near the Emeryville track when he became involved in a incident in which guns were drawn. Fortunately, bystanders intervened and no shots were fired. The Call article suggests Conley was reacting to his hand being tipped by a spectator.
Conley again found himself in trouble in 1902. On April 30 as Conley was leaving the track, he reportedly made an insulting comment to a white female who slapped him in the face. The incident was reported to police and Conley was arrested and taken to jail. Conley retained a Black attorney, Torn Pearson, who showed up the next day in court to defend the jockey. Judge Smith charged Conley with battery and released him on $50 bail. He was ordered to appear in court the next day. Conley failed to appear in court and forfeited his bail.
By this time he had boarded a train headed east for parts unknown. After this departure he never raced again in the Bay Area.
Conspiracy Against Black Jockeys and Anti-Betting Laws
After the turn of the century an unfortunate development occurred which made it difficult for Black jockeys to secure mounts. In a conspiracy on the part of white jockeys and horse owners, Black jockeys were not hired to ride in many parts of the country. White jockeys supported this policy because it eliminated competition from Black jockeys.
Another problem that confronted both white and Black jockeys was the closing of race tracks all over the country. The number of horse racetracks in the U.S. declined from 314 to as few as 25 in 1908. Many of them were forced to close because of anti-betting laws passed by cities and state legislatures. Ingleside Track closed in 1905 because of a San Francisco city ordinance banning racetrack betting. California passed an anti-betting law that closed all the racetracks in the state in 1911. The Emeryville Track was forced to close in February, 1911. All of the racetracks shut down in New York in 1911 and 1912. With fewer racetracks in operation, the occupation of jockey became more precarious.
Injured in Chicago
In January 1903 Conley made an appearance at the New Orleans track in the midst of a scandal. Track officials suspected there had been collusion between the bookies, trainers, and jockeys in an effort to rig the races. This inside information evidently gave the bookmakers an advantage. There was an investigation to make sure the races were conducted in an honest manner.
Conley raced again in October, 1903 at the Piedmont Park Racetrack in Atlanta, Georgia. On October 10, Conley, riding for H. C. Shulz of Detroit, piloted three winners across the finish line.
In June, 1904 at the Washington Park Racetrack in Chicago, Conley was involved in a serious accident. In the fourth race aboard Sky Pilot, the horse broke his right leg and collapsed on the track. Conley went down with the horse. He suffered a “severely injured” back as a result of the fall. He lay unconscious and had to be carried off the track.
He soon recovered and by August, 1904 he was back in the saddle riding at a track in St. Louis. Conley’s name appears in a July, 1907 newspaper aboard Paul at the Latonia Track in Kentucky.
1911: Attempted Comeback & Final Years
Conley’s name disappears from the newspapers for several years. However, in 1911 at the age of about 41, he tried to make a comeback by entering the Kentucky Derby. The race took place on May 13. In a field of seven horses, Conley, astride Colston, took third place, while the winner, Meridian, set a record for the course, having run the distance in 2:05:00. Conley’s horse lost by 15 lengths.
After his performance in the 1911 Kentucky Derby, Conley’s name again disappears from the newspapers for several years. Finally, a New York Herald, October 23, 1920, p. 11 article appeared which provides information about the twilight of his career.
The article reads:
“Conley is probably the oldest jockey in the world. He admits to forty-six, and his friends say he has passed the fifty mark. He is ‘Long Shot’ Jess Conley, who a generation ago was considered one of the best in the country. In 1904 he rode five winners in one day, and time and again guided home three and four winners a day. His last winning mount was in 1912. Since then he has had an occasional mount. He has earned his living exercising in the morning rather than riding in races.”
There are no public records to determine when and where Conley died and Conley has yet to be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
Anti-Betting Legislation Ends Race Track Era in California
Emeryville’s race track era came to an abrupt end when the State Legislature passed an anti-betting bill in 1910 that forced the California Jockey Club and all other California race tracks to close. The last race at Emeryville was run on February 15, 1911.
On December 15, 1915, a fire swept through the race track complex, destroying all of the buildings. The closing of the California Jockey Club, which in 1910 was the largest employer of African Americans in the city, was devastating to Emeryville’s African American work force.
Golden Gate Fields in Albany opened in 1947 after California re-legalized parimutuel wagering.
This excerpted story is a collaboration with the Emeryville Historical Society for Black History Month. For the entire story by EHS co-founder Don Hausler, please go to EmeryvilleHistorical.org.