There won’t be any African American jockeys competing at the Preakness Stakes on Saturday — in an industry once dominated by Black riders.
Saturday’s jockey list is predominantly made up of Latinos — Ricardo Santana Jr. and Luis Saez of Panama; Jose Ortiz, John Velazquez and Irad Ortiz Jr. of Puerto Rico; Joel Rosario of the Dominican Republic; Javier Castellano of Venezuela. Flavien Prat is from France; David Cohen of California; and Mike Smith of New Mexico.
In the first half of the 1800s, many of the jockeys were African Americans. They were enslaved, so they rode horses that belonged to various owners, said Kenneth Cohen, an associate professor of history and director of museum studies at the University of Delaware. Cohen previously worked at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
The jockeys were emancipated after the Civil War and continued to dominate the sport. But their success and earnings began to irritate white people, Cohen said, which led to a concerted effort by white jockeys to push Black riders out of racing.
Black jockeys were denied licenses — and in some cases even if they had licenses, owners didn’t want them. A common fear was horses ridden by Blacks — and the jockeys themselves — would be sabotaged or hit with crops by white jockeys, said Cohen, who is white.
“That kind of collusion among white riders really is what drove the segregation [and] African American riders out of the industry,” he said. “I don’t want to excuse the white owners and the racetrack owners because they went along with it, but the movements started by white riders who didn’t want to compete against Black riders, partly because they were getting beaten and also because in a country that is segregating, they felt like an industry that required them to compete against African Americans demoted their social standing.”
Cohen says the current lack of Black riders is a direct result of historic segregation.
There were not a lot of Black riders based in Maryland, but some occasionally rode in Maryland and were prominent figures in the industry.
In Maryland, George “Spider” Anderson was the first African American to win the Preakness, in 1889. Nine years later, Willie Simms also won.
Other famous Black riders included Jimmy Winkfield, who, after noticing segregation taking hold in America, left the country and became a champion rider in Europe, said Cohen.
While there have been concerns about the lack of Black riders in the sport, Rajiv Maragh, an Indo-Jamaican jockey, said he has not faced any barriers. He will next race at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Florida.
“If you work hard, it doesn’t matter your skin color. You’re [going] to get a chance,” said Maragh, who last competed in the Preakness nearly a decade ago and has won four Breeders’ Cup races. “Horse racing, in that regards, is very fair because I’ve been given a lot of great chances by people of all walks of life.”
Most jockeys normally have had ties to horse racing as children, he said. Growing up in Jamaica, he had many family members who were into the sport, including his dad, Collin Maragh, a retired jockey.
Breaking into the industry in the U.S. can be challenging because there are not many avenues to pursue the career, he explained. Most jockeys were not born in the U.S. Creating pipelines in the U.S. like those other countries have― such as jockey schools in Jamaica and Panama — would help, he said.
Maragh, 35, dreamed about becoming an international jockey since he was a child. He moved to the U.S. at about 15 and currently lives in Davie, Florida.
“If there were some barriers, I would not [have seen] it because I don’t look for that, because I just think of all the positive things,” he said. “I am very proud of my success coming from Jamaica — [a] small Caribbean Island.”
The Jockeys’ Guild wrote in an email this week that it doesn’t ask for ethnicity or race on its membership application. It does ask for gender, and of 950 active riders, 7% are female. There’s been an increase in Hispanic or Latino riders over the past couple of decades. They make up 70% of the organization’s riders.
Not asking for race or ethnicity is on purpose, said Jockeys’ Guild President and CEO Terry Meyocks. “We’re not [going] to do it. It does not matter what race they are. It doesn’t matter to us,” he said. “We don’t feel like there is a need to.”
Meyocks’ LinkedIn profile says he’s been president and CEO of the organization since 2007. Since he’s been with the Guild, he said, no one has ever turned down a jockey because of his or her ethnicity.
Meyocks didn’t comment on questions pertaining to the history of Black jockeys. In terms of Black jockeys being pushed out of racing, he said that might have happened a hundred years ago before he was even born.
The culture has changed over the years, and he says he does not know why the industry is no longer dominated by African American jockeys.
“Put it this way: You don’t see many individuals from the United States [who] are Caucasian riding today compared to what it was before,” he said.