Willie Simms was born on Jan. 16, 1870 in Augusta, Ga., and began riding at tracks along the East Coast in 1887. Simms quickly emerged as one of the most talented jockeys in the land and his services were sought by many of the top owners of the time, including August Belmont, Mike and Phil Dwyer, Richard Croker, Pierre Lorillard, John E. Madden and James R. Keene.
Simms won back-to-back runnings of the Belmont Stakes in 1893 (Commanche) and 1894 (Henry of Navarre) and led all jockeys in wins in 1894 with 228 (33 percent) from 688 mounts. He won the Kentucky Derby in 1896 (Ben Brush) and 1898 (Plaudit) and became the only African-American to win the Preakness Stakes with Sly Fox in 1898.
Other major races won by Simms include the Spinaway Stakes (2), Champagne Stakes, Brooklyn Derby (2), Clark Handicap, Lawrence Realization Stakes (2), Champion Stakes, Jerome Handicap, Brighton Handicap (2), Latonia Derby, Withers Stakes (2), Dwyer Handicap (2), Suburban Handicap and Toboggan Handicap.
In 1895, Simms rode briefly in England for Croker and Mike Dwyer and there introduced the American style of riding with short stirrups, which was later popularized by Tod Sloan, Danny Mahar and Johnny Reiff. Simms became the first American rider to ever win a race in England with an American horse and all-American connections.
Willie Simms was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1977.