In this surprising and sometimes tantalizing book, Katherine C. Mooney argues that from slavery through the First World War, Thoroughbred racetracks in the United States were critical sites in the formation of a national elite invested in a shared vision of hierarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy. Racehorses “inspired such devotion,” Mooney insists, “because for their owners they evoked a sense of clarity about how the world worked or should work” (p. 5). Though eschewing historiographic discussions, this book is best seen as a welcome bridge between two recent scholarly trends: 1) studies on capitalist class formation in the North; 2) research on the centrality of slavery and the South in the history of capitalism.
American racetracks helped incubate a ruling class and its ideology, one in which social and racial hierarchies were naturalized and the struggles of enslaved and free workers ignored or suppressed in the interests of property-holding planters, manufacturers, merchants, and bankers. Although challenged by sectionalism, the Civil War, and the counterpolitics of black horsemen, powerful networks of horse-obsessed politicians and capitalists (both northern and southern) assembled themselves through buying, breeding, and selling Thoroughbreds; finding, trading, and exploiting skilled black trainers and jockeys; and by attending, discussing, and reading and writing about horse races.
Mooney pays close attention not only to the much-mythologized white turfmen but to the black men who made their lives in slavery and in freedom at the racetrack. This is at once among the most original, interesting, and frustrating features of the book. Readers will learn about celebrity enslaved jockeys like Samuel Purdy, Hark, Abe Hawkins, and Charles Stewart, who was able to buy and sell his own wife and children. Unlike most enslaved people, black horsemen were widely known as individuals, their names and exploits often far more famous than those of their owners. They could also become [End Page 753] relatively rich and independent, and some secured incredible privileges of movement. Yet while enslaved horsemen found themselves at the boundary of freedom, Mooney argues that theirs was also a particularly “insidious” form of bondage. With Charles Stewart as the primary example, Mooney suggests that rather than channeling their circumscribed freedoms into expanding freedom for others, many instead sought to become masters (of horses and people). Privilege had prevented solidarity and seduced enslaved horsemen into internalizing the ideology of mastery.
Or so Mooney asserts. The problem is that many of her claims are based on a single example. Similarly, Mooney tends to assert, rather than demonstrate, that racetracks easily reproduced the relations of mastery and slave market and that white men consciously and purposefully placed black people in stands, stalls, and saddles to stage a scripted racial performance. The book also suffers from an unexplained focus on the South and an inattention to class and spectators. Northern horses keep beating southern horses, but the North is marginal to her story and seems to have had no influence on the culture of Thoroughbred racing.
The strongest sections are chapters five through seven, where Mooney explores the rise and fall of free black jockeys through Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Her close, well-researched analysis of how racetracks, reunion, and ruling class formation constituted themselves with and against an alternative politics of free black horsemen is convincing and compelling. The sudden appearance, however, of racist white jockeys organizing to push African Americans from the sport in the early twentieth century is jarring and could have been avoided with more consistent attention to class and labor relations in both North and South. Still, Race Horse Men is compellingly written, refreshingly original, and should be read and debated in classrooms for years to come. [End Page 754]
JEREMY B. ZALLEN is an assistant professor of history at Lafayette College. He is currently completing a book manuscript on the struggles of the enslaved and free American workers who produced the material means of light from 1750 to 1900.