By Jenny Bridle
(Courtesy of http://www.fasttrack.hk)
The recent Quentin Tarantino film, Django Unchained, tells the story of a freed slave turned cowboy bounty hunter in the American South of the 1850s. While the movie was popular, grossing almost $500 million worldwide, it was criticized for gratuitous violence and excessive use of the “n word.” Regarding the violence, this is a Quentin Tarantino movie – violence is a central part of every story he tells. And, while the “n word” is hard to even type out, it is a word that was used in the South to describe slaves and freemen. Aside from the violence and the “n word,” perhaps the challenge for some viewers was the same as for some of the characters in the film.
Here in North America a black person on a horse is just not a common sight either in real life or in the movies, which is odd given that in the 17th and 18th century, 1 in 4 cowboys were black.
While blacks may seem incongruous as cowboys, nothing can take away from the fact that African Americans have a very long historical connection with horses in North America. Indeed, the first real sports stars were the great black jockeys of the 19th and early twentieth centuries.
It’s not surprising that early horse racing was essentially run by enslaved blacks and later freemen or what we would now term African Americans. Slaves, in what would become the United States following the Civil War, were considered much the same as livestock by their owners. Thus generations of slaves had cared for, trained, and ridden their owners’ Thoroughbreds. With Emancipation at the end of the Civil War in 1865, freed black slaves, known as freemen, dominated the sport of horse racing. Nowhere was this more evident than in the first running of that most American institution – the Kentucky Derby of 1875 in which 13 of the 15 jockeys were black. Ridden by black jockey Oliver Lewis the first winner of the Derby was a colt named Aristides, trained by Ansel Williamson who was also black.
Black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derbys and 6 of the first 17 winners had black trainers. These include Isaac Murphy who won the Kentucky Derby 3 times and is buried next to the great Man O’ War. Alonso Clayton and James Perkins each won the Derby when they were 15 years old. And, James Winkfield won the Derby twice, in 1901 and 1902.
Despite this history, after 1921 there were no black riders on any tracks in the country until Marlon St. Julien rode Curule to a seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Derby of 2000. With Jim Crow legislation coming into effect in the late nineteenth century, racial segregation meant that black jockeys and trainers were driven out of racing, sometimes by force, out of the sport. By the early 1920s, there were no black jockeys or trainers remaining.
Fast forward almost 100 years from the beginnings of segregation and there are very few black jockeys or other participants such as black trainers and owners beyond the back stretch. In the United States and Canada, where hundreds of jockeys are registered to race ride, there are 4 black jockeys who have name recognition: Deshawn Parker, the son of racing’s 1st African American steward, who has 4,000 wins; Patrick Husbands, well known at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto and 7 time Sovereign Award winner; Kevin Krigger who rode Goldencents in the Kentucky Derby of 2013; and C. J. McMahon who says he wants “people to look up to me as a person and just notice the color of my skin…There have been a lot of good, successful black jockeys. I hope to be one of them.”
Outside of the United States, two jockeys particularly stand out: S’manga Khumalo, who became the first black South African to win South Africa’s top horse race, the Durban July Handicap and Eduardo Pedroza, four-time German champion jockey, rider of Germany’s 2013 Horse of the Year, Novellist currently standing at stud at Shedai Stallion Station in Hokkaido, Japan.
Finding other black people in the sport is equally challenging outside of North America. Beyond a concerted syndicate recruiting effort in South Africa, which has successfully brought in some 200 new owners in recent years, black owners are even rarer. In the U.S. there have been some well-known black owners.
During the 1980s, Tamla Motown founder, Berry Gordy was heavily invested in racing through his Vistas Stables. After French bred, Argument, placed second in the 1980 Arc, making up 15 lengths in the stretch, Gordy and partner Bruce McNall (well-known thoroughbred owner who also owned the Los Angeles Kings and the Toronto Argonauts) paid over $1m to buy the colt and he was flown to the US. He won his inaugural race there, the Washington International, with jockey Lester Piggot but was unplaced in his next effort, the first Arlington Million, which was won by the inimitable John Henry.
Hip Hop artist MC Hammer was at one time an owner with his nineteen-horse Oaktown Stables from which a Kentucky Derby runner came third a few years later.
More than these relatively few names, there are sporadic examples. There’s Noel Martin, the first black owner to win at Royal Ascot, which he did in 2006 with Baddam in the Ascot and Queen Alexandra Stakes. Martin’s story is truly inspirational. The victim of a violent attack by neo-nazis, which left him a quadriplegic, he says racing has been his support for many years:
“Sometimes you look at it and you think, I should be a broken man,” he said in a 2010 interview.
“but I just push on and do what I have to do. And racing has given me … put it this way, it’s made me last an extra 10 years, because when my wife died [in 2000], I was going to die with her. . .Racing isn’t just about the big people. If the poor people weren’t gambling and trying to get rich, it would all fall down. There are a lot of people that would like to be there, but they don’t feel welcome. I urge them to do it. It can be done, and you’ll have fun.”
In 2008, American rapper, Snoop Dogg, attended the Melbourne Cup as an invited celebrity guest.
And, there have always been rumours over the years such as Jay Z’s reported $50m purchase of 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner California Chrome. This story proved to be just gossip. Jay Z is also reportedly a 7% stakeholder in Aquaduct Racetrack in New York but this seems unlikely given his criminal conviction for stabbing record producer Lance “Un” Rivera in 1999, which would preclude such ownership under state law.
All of this leads a person to ask, Why, when so many leaders in all walks of life are black, are there not more black jockeys, trainers and owners? Imagine if Jay Z, one of the most powerful people in the music industry today, had bought California Chrome or perhaps even better, if he started a celebrity syndicate at the elite racing level. Surely, if racing is marketed as lifestyle and entertainment, then having leaders from these segments would have an enormous impact. The question is, will “the old boys” running racing clubs “allow” them in?