BOOK: Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack

Race Horse Men recaptures the vivid sights, sensations, and illusions of nineteenth-century thoroughbred racing, America’s first mass spectator sport. Inviting readers into the pageantry of the racetrack, Katherine C. Mooney conveys the sport’s inherent drama while also revealing the significant intersections between horse racing and another quintessential institution of the antebellum South: slavery.

A popular pastime across American society, horse racing was most closely identified with an elite class of southern owners who bred horses and bet large sums of money on these spirited animals. The central characters in this story are not privileged whites, however, but the black jockeys, grooms, and horse trainers who sometimes called themselves race horse men and who made the racetrack run. Mooney describes a world of patriarchal privilege and social prestige where blacks as well as whites could achieve status and recognition and where favored slaves endured an unusual form of bondage. For wealthy white men, the racetrack illustrated their cherished visions of a harmonious, modern society based on human slavery.

After emancipation, a number of black horsemen went on to become sports celebrities, their success a potential threat to white supremacy and a source of pride for African Americans. The rise of Jim Crow in the early twentieth century drove many horsemen from their jobs, with devastating consequences for them and their families. Mooney illuminates the role these too-often-forgotten men played in Americans’ continuing struggle to define the meaning of freedom.

Source: Amazon


Writing with exceptional polish and élan, Katherine Mooney succeeds brilliantly at restoring humanity to black jockeys and trainers. This superb book says as much about the cruelties and distortions wrought by racism in nineteenth-century America as any single book can. (W. Fitzhugh Brundage, author of The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory)

Katherine Mooney leads us inside the paddock and beyond the finish line to reveal how horse racing shaped American society and molded race relations. In doing so, she brings to life the struggles of numerous individuals long lost to history. The result is an eye-opening and important book. (Louis P. Masur, author of Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union)

Katherine Mooney gives us a vivid, pioneering study of the horse-racing world, a mainstay of nineteenth-century American and Southern culture. Her portrayal of the lives of black jockeys is a revelation. She uses sporting drama to illuminate the interplay between callousness and selective personal affection that pervaded white attitudes toward blacks. (Melvin Patrick Ely, author of Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War)

Black men were active in 19th-century racing, most prominent in the South, as jockeys, grooms, and trainers for this first large spectator sport in the United States…But Mooney shows how white resentment of black presence and success at the race track increased. Whites feared that the example of success that these race-horse men set would incite other blacks to demand more rights and become violent. With the rise of Jim Crow in the South, blacks were driven out of the sport. (Patsy Gray Library Journal 2014-03-15)

Mooney’s book draws on the stories and memoirs of a range of figures across racing, as the sport became simultaneously a Southern specialty and an object of popular fascination. Race Horse Men is stitched out of these portraits, many of which are wonderfully effective in revealing just how ambiguous, for example, the situation of enslaved grooms, trainers, jockeys, and breeding-shed managers could be…Mooney’s book is at its strongest when it peers not into the clubhouse but out into the stables…She positions her history to thread together a large chunk of time, when racing carried the burden of chattel slavery and civil war. (Eric Banks Chronicle of Higher Education 2014-05-05)

Katherine Mooney’s enthralling account of an all-but-forgotten population of elite slaves in the American South reads like a novel. Race Horse Men is both the story of 19th century thoroughbred racing–‘America’s first mass-audience sport’–and a detailed portrait of the expert equestrian slaves and free black horsemen upon whose competence in the stables wealthy white ‘turfmen’ depended…Mooney makes a strong case for why these forgotten histories continue to illuminate systems of inequality to this day. (Thomas Chatterton Williams San Francisco Chronicle 2014-05-30)

It is that history–of rich white men, enslaved black men, and the birth of American horse racing–that Katherine C. Mooney tells in Race Horse Men. Scholarly yet accessible, the book argues that far from subverting the racist notions of the slave-holding South, black horsemen were seen as ‘the perfect slaves, precisely calibrated extensions of a master’s will’ and ‘central figures in turfmen’s vision of the harmony of a slave society.’ (Kate Tuttle Boston Globe 2014-06-01)

About the Author

Katherine C. Mooney is Assistant Professor of History at Florida State University.

Source: Amazon


First African-American Steward: DeShawn Parker (Jockey)

deshawn-parker10Deshawn Parker is the most successful black horse jockey in today’s modern derbies with over 4,000 victories. In a sport that is now dominated by Latinos, Parker is the 54th highest-ranking jockey in racing history.

After sitting under the horse track rails playing in the dirt and watching his father exercise horses, DeShawn Parker, 4 or 5 years old at the time, would stand beside a towering horse. His father, Daryl, would yell, “Rescue!” then lean over, scoop up the young boy and plop him onto the horse.

DeShawn Parker went from jumping into his father’s arms at the Latonia, Ky., track to mounting horses, exercising them and finally compiling the most wins for an African-American jockey in the history of horse racing.

His father didn’t expect his son to make horse-racing history.

“I always took DeShawn to the race track with me,” Daryl Parker, 59, said from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio. “That was his treat. If he was good, he could go hang out with me at the track. He’s accomplished a lot more than I ever imagined. I thought he might make a nice living exercising horses and go on to play baseball. But his love for riding took over and he could not wait to get back to horses.”

Daryl Parker has his own page in horse racing’s history. In 1986, he was named the sport’s first African-American steward. Stewards enforce the rules at racetracks and review alleged violations. When he became a steward, he made an agreement with his son, who was 16 at the time: Promise to graduate from high school and you can try your hand at being a jockey.

Deshawn Parker is the most successful black horse jockey in today’s modern derbies with over 4,000 victories. In a sport that is now dominated by Latinos, Parker is the 54th highest-ranking jockey in racing history. Today, only 30 of the approximate 750 members of the national Jockey’s Guild are African American. According to recent stats, 42-year-old Parker has estimated earnings of over $47 million dollars. In 2010, Deshawn Parker became the first black jockey to win the most North American races since James “Soup” Perkins in 1895. Parker credits his success to the pioneering black jockeys of history like Isaac Murphy, who was the first black sports millionaire in 1884.

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