From slavery to freedom: Black jockeys, grooms and horse trainers

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Susanna Hedenborg
Department of Sport Sciences, Malmö Uiversity


Katherine C. Mooney
Race Horse Men: How slavery and freedom were made at the racetrack
321 pages, h/c, ill.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2014
ISBN 978-0-674-28142-4

In her book, Race Horse Men: How slavery and freedom were made at the racetrack, Katherine C. Mooney analyzes intersections of race and social class in the 19th century American horse racing. Mooney, an assistant professor at Florida State University, conveys how slavery and, later on, the freeing of slaves shaped the American horse racing context. Just as the British historian Mike Huggins has demonstrated in his books on horse racing in England, Mooney shows that the racing tracks were places in which people of different backgrounds met over borders that were not normally crossed.[1] Power relations were, however, clear. Elite class owners bred horses and betted large sums of money on the races. The horses were taken care of and ridden and trained by others – black jockeys, grooms and horse trainers calling themselves race horse men. White men, as well as some black men, could achieve status on the basis of the results of the horses.

The interdependency of different people and their roles and the relation between status, results and working together around the horse has been emphasized by other researchers of the horse racing track as well.[2] Mooney’s study takes this analysis one step further as the reader is guided through the history of racism, slavery and freedom, whereas others have studied the interdependency in relation to social class. By the white men in power the race track was seen as a quintessential representative of an harmonious society – an illustration of white privilege and black slavery in harmony. Yet, Mooney demonstrates that horse racing was not as harmonious as the actors in power wanted it to look like. It was a context in which struggles for patriarchal and social privileges and prestige were evident, and it can be seen as a symbol for the power relationships in the Southern American society.

Mooney’s analysis also covers issues related to the period after the emancipation. She demonstrates that free black horsemen tried to establish themselves at the race track, or lost their jobs, which was devastating for their families, but their success – priding African Americans – was seen as a threat to white supremacy in the new society. White resentment of black presence increased over time and the success of the black horse men was seen as disturbing the order of the society as their accomplishments were considered to be possible incitements for African Americans to demand more rights. Racism worked in new ways and the story of how for example Jimmy Winkfield had to continue his carrier in Europe is a clear example.[3]

In a previous review on idrottsforum.org (http://idrottsforum.org/reviews/items/hedsus_saunders-saunders.html) I called for a systematic analysis of horse racing from an ethnicity or race perspective. In Mooney’s book, we find a deeper analysis and a story of American horse racing – but also as a story of how race and social class as well as gender shape history. This is interesting and important. I would now welcome an analysis based on these perspectives on contemporary horse racing.

Copyright © Susanna Hedenborg 2017


[1] Huggins, M. (2003). Horseracing and the British, 1919-39. Manchester: Manchester University Press; Huggins, M. (2000, 2014). Flat racing and British society, 1790-1914: A social and economic history. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
[2] Cf. Carole Case on the paddock ritual in Case, C. (1991). Down the backstretch: Racing and the American dream. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press; Greiff, M., & Hedenborg, S. (2007). I sulky och sadel: Historiska perspektiv på svensk trav- och galoppsport. Stockholm: Carlsson; Hedenborg, S. (2008). Arbete på stallbacken: Nittonhundratalets svenska galoppsport ur genus- och generationsperspektiv. Malmö: Idrottsforum.org.
[3] Saunders, J. R., & Saunders, M. R. (2003). Black winning jockeys in the Kentucky Derby. Jefferson N C: McFarland & Co; Drape, J. (2006). Black maestro: The epic life of an American legend. New York: Morrow; Hotaling, E. (2006). Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield. Ragged Mountain Pr.
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