Africa is a Jockey

Will the breakthrough of a Swazi jockey in British horse racing change the global stakes for Africa and its diaspora's riders?

Photo: Roger Blake, via Flickr CC.

I want to share the story of an African Jockey, Sean Levey, but a blush biographical blurb about a rising star from Swaziland, particularly when his fresh face, a black face, is such a rarity in racing, would be like a cosmologist describing the universe without reference to dark matter.

Levey is not some celestial trailblazer for African or jockeys from its diaspora, but a reminder of a heritage now barely discernible through race binoculars. In introducing the bright young thing that is Sean Levey, I will also consider his peers and look back at some of the black stars of the game. Black jockeys once had cache akin to today’s gold medal Olympians or Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, but now the sight of a black jockey is as rare as the proverbial black swan. Who were the black star riders of a bygone age and how did we lose track of them in the racing galaxy? And what does it say about the nature of the sport today that so few black jockeys are aligned with the world’s greatest racehorses? Will the breakthrough of one African jockey change the global stakes for African and Diaspora riders?

When eighteen horses lined up in Europe’s richest race, Le Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp this past Sunday, there was not a black rider in the saddle. Similarly, when twenty-four horses parade in the Flemmington paddock before the world’s richest handicap, the Melbourne Cup, in early November, no one will be giving a black jockey a leg up. You can also be sure that when the bugler signals the start of the Breeders Cup at Santa Anita (what American racing enthusiasts casually refer to as “the World Championships”) next month, there will probably not be an African American jockey in the gate. It follows the same is largely true across global racing’s prestigious Group and Grade race cards, as well as among the less glamorous daily Handicap features that sustain the sport. It is a pattern. Some believe racing has a ‘race’ reputation. This may be unfair since racing has diverse participants and stakeholders across the globe. The rise of Indo-Caribbean and Latino jockeys in America being a compelling counterpoint. Female jockeys rode past the glass winning post decades ago. There seems to be few soccer-like racist incidents pulling on the sport, yet there remains serious inertia regarding the participation of black jockeys (and it would follow, black trainers and owners).

Sean Levey is vying to be champion apprentice jockey in Britain this year. He has the potential to win the world’s greatest horse races and change perceptions of the sport. It was a long way to Tipperary from Southern Africa for the teenage Levey. His parents’ decision to relocate to the county with the bluest grass in Ireland proving prescient for their prodigious child. Tipperary is home to Irish breeding and bloodstock giant, Coolmore. Sean’s father took up employment as an exercise rider for Ballydoyle, the racing arm of the concern, and soon Sean was hired as a stable lad. Between mucking out stables and riding pony races, Sean’s skills were quickly recognized and he was granted an apprenticeship under famed trainer, Aiden O’Brien. In 2006, Levey was chosen to ride in his first Group 1 race aboard Beauty Bright in the Irish 1,000 Guineas, a phenomenal booking for such a young rider. O’Brien’s trust in the rider extended further to France in 2009, when Levey got the ride aboard Cornish, a pacemaker for stable star Fame and Glory in the 2009 Arc de Triomphe. Last year, Levey relinquished the apron strings and reins in Tipperary and set out to make his name in British racing. He is now 2nd jockey at Champion Trainer Richard Hannon’s yard. Here Levey will surely pick up rides on Group rated horses and prosper. His career trajectory is now tight to the rail. You can bet on him winning big races in the future.

Levey is not alone. There are other black riders ploughing the dirt and turf and trying to swoop in Europe, North America, Southern Africa and in the jockey clubs of South and Central America, though not as far as I know with any regularity in Asia, which as far as The Economist is concerned is certain to dominate racing in the decades ahead, with jockey clubs in the Middle East and Far East hosting the three richest races in the world. The most successful black jockey riding in Europe today is Panamanian Eduardo Pedroza. “Eddie” made his name in the rather unfashionable world of German racing, winning the German 1,000 Guineas, German Derby, and claiming the title of German champion jockey on four consecutive occasions. In the rather more rarified air of the French gallops, Johan Victoire wins occasional minor flat races, but only possesses a single digit win percentage rate. Adeline Gadras makes his living riding over fences in the French provinces. Before Sean Levey, Royston Ffrench had been the only black jockey riding regularly in Britain, and although he won the historic Cesarewitch Handicap in 1996, as well as two German classics, a German Derby and a German St Leger (a long distance gallop), and was champion apprentice in Britain in 1997, he has never won a Group 1 race at any of the esteemed English turf venues — a reflection, I would say, of the horses booked for him rather than his jockeyship.

Muzi Yeni and S’Manga Khumalo

In South Africa, the stalls handlers, stable lads and work riders are invariably black. Stable jobs are relatively highly paid and much sought after in South Africa. The weighing room, however, on the big race pay days remains largely the domain of whites–Afrikaners, English and or the occasional Irish pilot. Muzi Yeni and S’Manga Khumalo are local black riders who now seem best placed to buck that trend. Yeni rode Master Plan for his Group 1 victory in the Champions Cup at Greyville at the Durban July festival this year, while Khumalo rode the filly Dancewiththedevil to his first Group 1 victory in last year’s Oppenheimer Chesnut Stakes, Gauteng’s premier Weight for Age race at the Tuftfontein track in Johannesburg.

Black Zimbabwean jockeys are similarly overlooked, with white South African jockeys generally flying in to ride the big races in Harare. Last year’s running of the Castle Tankard Stakes, the oldest sponsored race in Zimbabwe, featured only two black Zimbabwean jockeys from a field of sixteen runners, while the Grand Challenge saw only three local riders given mounts at Barrowdale Park. It seems incomprehensible that a crowd of over 30,000 can gather at a racetrack in Harare, yet the best chance some local jockeys have of winning big is to enter the “Shop OK” tambola.

There are only a handful of black jockeys riding in North America. The most successful black jockey riding in the world today is probably Patrick Husbands (left). Husbands has been a top tier jockey in Canada for over a decade and has been leading jockey at Toronto’s Woodbine track on five occasions. His most spectacular achievement was winning the Canadian Triple Crown aboard Wando in 2003. Husbands was a prodigy, winning the Barbados Gold Cup in 1990 as a mere 16 year old. The Barbadian does take occasional rides at more prestigious US tracks, twice winning Grade 1 contests at Belmont and Keeneland, yet it is surprising his Canadian success has not earned him more rides in exalted stakes races in the United States. One could argue Husbands’s relative anonymity at US tracks is a case of location, logistics and transportation, but racing is now a truly global affair with top jockeys crossing continents over the course of a weekend for rides. Husbands’s one and only mount in the Kentucky Derby was when riding Seaside Retreat in 2006. (Stop Press: Husbands did not have a ride in any of Woodbine’s three biggest races this year. The Nearctic Stakes, the E.P. Taylor Stakes and the Canadian International Stakes have combined winning purses approaching US$2 Million. It is the one day of the year when the racing world focusses on Canada, but those who watched yesterday won’t have seen Husbands. The card was loaded with top riders from Europe and United States, however.)

While Husbands remains a relative unknown outside Georgetown and Toronto, DeShawn Parker (left) is even more anonymous in his own country. Parker is one of about five African American jockeys currently riding in the United States. In 2010, Parker won more horse races at US tracks than any other jockey, an incredible achievement though barely recognized inside or outside of the sport. Bluegrass born and bred, Parker claimed those 377 wins at the relative backwater tracks in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, a world away from America’s Triple Crown venues and other historic hippodromes, such as Santa Anita and Saratoga. Parker has since set about showing off his skill set at Tampa Bay Downs, which is probably a notch above the Mid West tracks he once owned, though still probably not quite the place to find the calibre of horse to propel his career further. Parker has never won a Grade 1 race in the US. It is his stated aim to win a Breeders Cup or a Triple Crown race, but it remains to be seen whether will ever get a ride in, let alone win such contests. Parker is now 41. Time is against him. Before Husbands’s appearance in the 2006 Kentucky Derby, the last black jockey to feature was Louisiana based Marlon St. Julien, who rode Carule to 7th in 2000. Before St Julien took that mount, there had not been an African American jockey in America’s premier horse race for an astonishing 79 years!

Such successes as achieved by Pedroza, Ffrench, Husbands and Parker, are praiseworthy. These few black jockeys are established professionals and bona fide champions. African jockeys like Muzi Yeni, S’Manga Khumalo, Kevin Derere and Irish accented Sean Levey now have global role models. Yet, it must also be said that in the context of world racing, the achievements of today’s African and Diaspora jockeys are relatively modest. Canadian, German and West Virginian racing are not generally viewed as being the most glamorous, no disrespect meant to those racing authorities, or indeed to esoteric jockey clubs like Barbados, Guyana and Mauritius, where black jockeys regularly ride winners.

The current racing scene contrasts greatly with a time long gone, a time when black jockeys bossed the biggest horse races, mostly in the United States. It’s often forgotten, but a black jockey, Oliver Lewis, won the first Kentucky Derby in 1875. In the first fifteen Kentucky Derbies, the winner was ridden by a black jockey on thirteen occasions. Success was not just restricted to the Blue Grass State. In the late 1800s and through the turn of the century, African American jockeys were winning from coast to coast and in some of the most prestigious horse races in Europe. Remarkable times. Here are a just few historical highlights.

Ed Dudley Brown rode Kingfisher to victory in the Belmont Stakes in 1870. Brown went on to train two Kentucky Derby winners in Baden Baden in 1877 and Hindoo in 1881. Brown also trained and owned two Kentucky Oaks winners. In 1889, George “Spider” Anderson was the first African American to win the Preakness, riding Budhist to victory at the Pimlico track in Baltimore. Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton became the then youngest jockey to ever win the Kentucky Derby aboard Azra in 1892. Lonnie also won two Kentucky Oaks in 1894 and 1895, as well as numerous stakes races in New York, including the prestigious Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Tony Hamilton won the Futurity Stakes aboard Potomac in 1890, as well two Brooklyn Handicaps in 1889 and 1895. Erskine “Babe” Henderson won the Kentucky Derby with Joe Cotton in 1885. Jimmy Lee won the Latonia Derby with The Abbott in 1906, but is probably best remembered for sweeping the entire race card at Churchill Downs on June 5th, 1907, a year in which he won 47 races during the Spring meeting, a record that stood until 1976. Isaac Lewis won the Kentucky Derby with Montrose in 1887. Isaac Burns Murphy was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby on three occasions, with Buchanan in 1884, Riley in 1890 and Kingman in 1891. Murphy remains the only jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and prestigious Clark Handicap in the same year. He managed 628 wins in 1,412 races, a career win percentage of 44%, a statistic no jockey will ever match.

And the hits kept on coming. James “Soup” Perkins was America’s Champion Jockey in 1895 with 192 wins, a year he also won the Kentucky Derby aboard Halma. Georgia’s Willie Simms was the only African American jockey to win all three Triple Crown races, winning the Kentucky Derby in 1896 and 1898, the Preakness in 1898, and the Belmont in 1893 and 1894. Simms’s fame also extended to British tracks were he was a notable presence in the 1890s, introducing the “short” style of riding, leaning far up the neck of a horse, revolutionizing the art of race riding in England and Europe.

Simms was not the only African American jockey to have had an impact on European racing. Jimmy Winkfield (left) was another. Winkfield accomplished the rare feat of winning back to back Kentucky Derbies with His Eminence in 1901 and Alan-a-Dale in 1902. Known as the King of the Chicago tracks, Winkfield also won the Latonia Derby, New Orleans Derby, Clark Handicap and Tennessee Derby, but it was in Europe where he had the biggest impact, winning a whole host of classic races including the Russian Derby (four times), Russian Oaks (five times), the Warsaw Derby (twice), the Prix President de la Republic and the Grand Prix de Deauville (two of France’s most renowed races, then and now). I cannot begin to do justice to Jimmy Winkfield’s legacy here, but those interested in the life of man who witnessed lynchings, had his American career halted by Jim Crow laws and ended up in Czarist Russia with white man as his personal valet, then I recommend Joe Drape’s tour de force, Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend.

Jim Crow curtailed the careers of African American jockeys in their prime and pomp. Horse racing in America has never been the same. Hollywood has told plenty of romantic horse stories and great horses like Sea Biscuit and Secretariat are now immortalized, ‘On Demand’, but the story of the great African American jockeys, the horses they rode on and how they once ruled the Sport of Kings remains a niche narrative. Black South African jockeys never reached the heights of their American cousins, but what achievements there may have been from the first races Khoikhoi riders rode against British officers at Green Point in 1795 to the tracks that sprouted up after diamond and gold rushes and wool booms have been buried.

What Jim Crow could do, ditto the South African Jockey Club, which banned participation of non-whites in racing, except as grooms, in the 1920s — decades before Apartheid. It seems the residual effects of such shameful bigotry have continued to handicap the progress of black jockeys to this day. Sean Levey now has the potential to replicate the achievements of the great Isaac Burns Murphy, Willie Simms and Jimmy Winkfield. This is largely because of a combination of family decisions, his skill and determination and a little luck. One always needs a little luck in racing. The prospects of the Swaziland jockey have not been enhanced because the industry in its various manifestations stepped up in any significant way to do more for black riders. If they had have done, there would be many more black jockeys racing at the highest levels in Britain, France, South Africa and the United States. It is also fair to counter and say most jockeys of whatever ethnicity have a hard time finding mounts on the very best racehorses. It is a very competitive business.

All of which is not to suggest the racing establishment is racist, but perhaps aloof, absent-minded and disconnected in some way from its own black history and from a community that can once again contribute so much to the sport. Racing jurisdictions cannot force owners and trainers to choose jockeys, and no one is calling for some politically correct allowance, but racing’s constituents can and should do more. Mark Casse, Andreas Wohler, Aiden O’Brien and Richard Hannon are establishment trainers who have given young, gifted, black jockeys opportunities. Others should consider how they too can make racing more inclusive and appealing to wider audiences.

In the meantime, Sean Levey has a lot of weight and history to carry.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.

And do not hinder them

We hardly think of children as agents of change. At the height of 1980s apartheid repression in South Africa, a group of activists did and gave them the tool of print.

The new antisemitism?

Stripped of its veneer of nuance, Noah Feldman’s essay in ‘Time’ is another attempt to silence opponents of the Israeli state by smearing them as anti-Jewish racists.