In Race Horse Men, Katherine C. Mooney does exactly what her subtitle says: She explains “how slavery and freedom were made at the racetrack.” This is no small feat. As Amy Bass and others noted in a June 2014 roundtable in the Journal of American History, most histories of American sport analyze it as a reflection of economic and social developments rather than as an arena of cultural and political production where people “made” things like slavery and freedom.
Yet Mooney shows how racehorse owners and the black horsemen who labored for them did just that. Using a rich array of sources, including unprecedented work in the personal correspondence of a dozen leading owners and underused examples of visual evidence, in addition to [End Page 335] the periodical literature that typically dominates studies of racing, Mooney shows how both white owners and black workers envisioned and then tried to craft the worlds they wanted through thoroughbred racing. For owners, racing promised to “reaffirm established hierarchies” by giving wealthy men an exclusive stage on which their horses and staff represented them before an adoring public (38). However, successful horsemen who turned their own acclaim from owners and the public into improved circumstances saw racing as a vehicle to “succeed in becoming a master” themselves (64).
Mooney argues that, for the better part of the nineteenth century, these two visions co-existed more easily than one might expect. Indeed, the book’s early chapters convincingly explain how slave trainers, grooms, and jockeys gained uncommon degrees of autonomy and even respect from whites who comfortably permitted such authority precisely because they retained the power to sell or demote those horsemen. The popularity of fast horses handled by well-dressed, well-treated, and even well-paid slaves worked to obscure the brutality of slavery and “recognized the viability of their conception of the United States as a slaveholders’ republic” (95).
The compatibility of owners’ and horsemen’s visions faltered only after the Civil War, a conflict Mooney suggests the predominantly Whiggish racehorse-owning fraternity tried to avoid at all costs. At first, the 1870s and 1880s merely saw an injection of northern capital and ownership into racing, as the new industrial elite used the sport to unite North and South behind their management of white and black labor alike. Just as predecessors had imagined a slaveholding republic at the track, “now turfmen hoped that the track could help form a similarly powerful vision of freedom” that would preserve their economic and political control in the face of emancipation and labor unrest (163). But the introduction of segregation, coupled with grand displays of wealth and influence by successful black jockeys, undermined the old arrangement. “Black horsemen’s success could not be safely channeled into the support of white supremacy” any longer, and the story ends with white owners— supported by white horsemen—gradually pushing black men out of all but the bottom-most jobs in the thoroughbred world (225).
Some of this story is not new. Most of the fabled races, owners, and black horsemen Mooney recalls were first brought back to life in journalist Edward Hotaling’s books The Great Black Jockeys (1999) and Wink (2005). But Mooney valuably complicates Hotaling’s oversimplified and [End Page 336] overly optimistic spin on black men in the horse business. Her archival sources shed greater light on the owners, most notably detailing their retention of power over horsemen, and how they explicitly engaged with certain jockey clubs, races, and breeding clients in order to build political alliances that served their interests in industrial development for almost a century—from Henry Clay’s American System to the election of William McKinley. In addition, Mooney provides a more nuanced reading of the periodical literature, applying her findings from the archival record to read between the lines and bring to light the tension between owners’ political applications of racing and black horsemen’s efforts to pursue opportunity.
Race Horse Men unveils how racing shaped politics, ideologies, and perceptions...