Jim Crow in the saddle: The expulsion of African American jockeys from American racing

Michael Leeds, Hugh Rockoff 22 February 2021

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The legacy of Jim Crow continues to this day. Contemporary historians, such as Chernow (2017), have cast off the traditional depiction of the ‘carpetbagger era’ and have documented the official and unofficial repression of African Americans in the post-Civil War period. Economic research, such as Lisa Cook’s (2014) study of the dearth of patents for African American inventors, has shown how Blacks and whites have been harmed by the aftereffects of Jim Crow. Some in the popular literature have drawn a link between the incomplete task of Reconstruction and recent political violence, such as the assault on the US Capitol (Cineas 2021).

In a recent paper (Leeds and Rockoff 2020), we use historical sources and statistical analysis to document one such exclusion – namely, the disappearance of African American jockeys.  Understanding why and how African Americans were banished from what was then one of the nation’s preeminent sports and entertainment activities sheds light on the greater power held by athletes – particularly Black athletes – today (e.g. Scott 2020). It also reflects the broader racial injustices that were perpetrated at the time and the legacies of those injustices that we face today.

In 1875, Oliver Lewis, a black jockey, steered Aristedes to victory in the first Kentucky Derby.  Indeed, 14 of the 15 jockeys in the race were African Americans.  Black jockeys were a common feature of horseracing in the US.  Ironically, this was most common in the American South, where enslaved people had often cared for and rode the horses owned by wealthy whites prior to the Civil War.  After Emancipation, white Southerners readily accepted African Americans as jockeys, seeing this role as an extension of the lost antebellum order (e.g. Mooney 2014 passim, McDaniels 2013: 190).

Many of the top jockeys in the decades following the Civil War were black, including Isaac Burns Murphy, Willie Simms, and Jimmy Winkfield, all of whom won the Kentucky Derby multiple times. Two graphs document the rise and fall of black jockeys.  Figure 1 shows that African American jockeys enjoyed considerable success in the prestigious Triple Crown races (the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but this success abruptly ended shortly after 1900.  This patten is matched by the share of mounts going to African Americans during this period, which rises until 1892 and steadily declines thereafter.  This pattern is largely due to the Kentucky Derby, as the other two Triple Crown races had far fewer black jockeys and far less variation in their number.

Figure 1 Triple Crown races won by African American Jockeys, 1870–2018

  

Sources: O’Connor (1921), Sowers (2014), and contemporary news sources.

Figure 2 The share of African American jockeys in Triple Crown races, 1867–1915

Sources: O’Connor (1921), Sowers (2014), and contemporary news sources.

The sudden change of regime in 1892 coincides with stark changes in the environment facing African Americans in Kentucky. In 1892, Kentucky enacted the Separate Coach Bill, legislation that required trains to provide separate accommodations for black riders.  This was the first of many restrictive laws adopted by Kentucky, bringing it more closely in line with other Southern states.

The 1890s also saw a rise in conflict between white and black jockeys.  White jockeys began to target black competitors for rough treatment during races.  Whether because they tacitly approved of such behaviour or because they felt that black jockeys now were unlikely to succeed because they now “met with all sorts of accidents and interferences in their races”,1 white owners began to turn away from black jockeys.

We tested the impact of political and social forces on the presence of black jockeys by applying regression analysis to data on the representation of black jockeys in Triple Crown races and conditions of the time.  Our observations go from 1867, the year of the earliest Triple Crown race (the Belmont Stakes), to 1911, the last year a black jockey appeared in a Triple Crown race in the 20th century.

Our regression results showed that the representation of Black jockeys rose with the number of horses in the race, suggesting that Black jockeys were not the first choice of owners and trainers.  Two variables designed to capture the social and political climate of the times – the percentage of the popular vote in Southern states going to third-party presidential candidates (Kousser 1974: Table 1.1) and a three-year moving average for the number of laws that suppressed voting by African Americans (e.g. the poll tax) that were enacted in Southern states (Kousser 1974: Table 9.1) – were unexpectedly associated with greater representation of black jockeys in Triple Crown races. These results could indicate that the political and social repression came in response to progress made by Blacks in all walks of life, including horseracing.  Alternatively, they could reflect the fact that these data are for all Southern states and that Kentucky was slower to oppress its African American residents. 

We also found that – at least for the Kentucky Derby – the representation of Black jockeys fell as the races themselves became more lucrative.  Presumably, as the races became more rewarding, so did being a jockey.  As one contemporary account put it, “[h]orsemen ascribe the passing of the colored riders to the fact that it is no longer considered ignoble to be a jockey, and the money to be made in the profession has drawn boys of good family to essay to learn the art of riding…”.2 Thus, Black jockeys fell victim to the same forces that led male coaches to displace female coaches in sports as they became more popular.

Having demonstrated that white jockeys helped push out Black jockeys with at least the tacit cooperation of owners, we next tested for whether bettors systematically undervalued Black jockeys.  We did so by using an ‘outcome test’, a technique first proposed by Gary Becker (1993). Becker postulated that if lenders discriminated against African American borrowers, then African Americans who were able to borrow would be better credit risks and would default less often than whites. In our case, if (largely white) bettors discriminated against Black jockeys, then the betting odds would be skewed against Black jockeys and black jockeys would finish ‘in the money’ (i.e. among the top three) more often than the betting odds predict.

We tested this hypothesis also using data from 1867 to 1911.  In this case, we regressed whether the horse finished in the money on characteristics of the race and whether the jockey for the horse was African American.  If our model is correctly specified and if bettors are not prejudiced, then the jockey’s race should have no impact on the horse’s finish.

We find that the probability that a horse finished in the money was negatively related to the number of horses in the race. This makes sense, as a larger number of horses increases the chance that another horse will have an unusually good race.  We also find – again, as expected – that the chance of finishing in the money rises with the quality of the horse, as measured by the odds of the horse winning the race improve. 

When looking at all Triple Crown races, we find weak evidence that Black jockeys outperformed the odds.  However, we find stronger evidence that they outperformed the odds in the Kentucky Derby.  Finally, we find clear evidence that Black jockeys increased the chance that better horses finished in the money.

The historical and statistical record tell a consistent story of exclusion of Black jockeys in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite their proven talent, African Americans were shut out of a sport they had dominated just a few years earlier.  Despite the lifting of barriers in recent years, they have been unable to approach the level of performance that had once been commonplace.  As in so many walks of life, America deprived itself of the talents of a large segment of its population, and horseracing became another sad example of the legacy of Jim Crow. 

References

Becker, G (1993), “Nobel Lecture: The Economic Way of Looking at Behavior”, Journal of Political Economy 101(3): 385-409.

Chernow, R (2017), Grant, Penguin Press.

Cineas, F (2021), “What Reconstruction teaches us about white nationalism today,” Vox.com, 21 January 21.

Cook, L D (2014), “Violence and economic activity: evidence from African American patents, 1870–1940”, Journal of Economic Growth 19(2): 221-257.

Kousser, J M (1974), The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-party South, 1880-1910, Yale University Press.

Leeds, M A and H Rockoff (2020), “Jim Crow in the Saddle: The Expulsion of African American Jockeys from American Racing”, NBER Working Paper 28167.

McDaniels III, P (2013), Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy, University of  Kentucky Press.

Mooney, K (2014), Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack, Harvard University Press.

O’Connor, J L (1921), History of the Kentucky Derby, 1875-1921, Rider Press.

Scott, D (2020), “The night the NBA suddenly stopped – and why it matters,” Vox.com, 27 August.

Sowers, R. (2014), The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes: A Comprehensive History, McFarland and Company, Inc.

Wilkinson, A (2020), “The Power of the black athlete, explained by the writer of High Flying Bird,” Vox.com, 2 September. 

Endnotes

1 “Negro Jockeys Shut Out: Combination of White Riders to bar them From the Turf”, New York Times, 29 July 1900. 

2  “Negro Rider on Wane: White Jockeys’ Superior Intelligence Supersedes”, Washington Post, 20 August 1905.

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Topics:  Economic history Politics and economics

Tags:  Jim Crow, racial inequality, Black athletes, African Americans

Professor of Economics, Temple University

Distinguished Professor at the Department of Economics, Rutgers University

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