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  • Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack by Katherine C. Mooney
  • Nicolas W. Proctor (bio)
Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack. By Katherine C. Mooney. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. 336. Cloth, $35.00.)

It begins with a horserace. Mooney's account of the three heats run in a contest between Eclipse, a recognized champion from New York, and Henry, a young chestnut challenger from Virginia, is stirring, and it is in moments like these that her writing is at its best. She places such legendary races into meaningful context and strives to show how the wealthy whites who arranged them used the opportunity to demonstrate their place at the top of the social hierarchy. For Mooney, the demimonde of thoroughbred racing was "a school, a showcase, and a testing ground—a political arena in the most literal sense" (27). She sets her work apart from earlier histories of the American track by focusing on the relationship between the track, race, and evolving ideas of mastery.

Yet Mooney sometimes struggles to draw a clear connection between the relatively well-documented lives of exceptional black horsemen and whites' "larger project of creating narratives of racial subordination and working to make them come true" (168). Indeed, in Mooney's retelling of the contest between Eclipse and Henry, the only blacks in evidence among the sixty thousand spectators were, as the National Advocate put it, the "little negers" who accompanied southern racing magnates (20). Mooney is determined to illuminate the lives of the "platoons of enslaved grooms, stable foremen, jockeys, and trainers," but since the vast majority of blacks involved with horseracing did their work behind the scenes, the story gets carried by a handful of exceptional horsemen like the trainer Charles Stewart (20).

Privileged, trusted, and in a few cases nationally renowned, these men were seen by their owners as "organic extensions of white men's will" (49). This status gave a handful special privileges, but for most, it created an excuse for special forms of suffering. Owners like John Minor Botts of Virginia sought to drop the riding weight of their jockeys through starvation or by having them buried in sweat-inducing piles of manure.

Given the sources, it is difficult to say what slave horsemen thought about themselves. Mostly, it appears that they were trying to make the best they could out of a bad deal. Mooney makes it clear that these men did not create a slave "elite." Even when given the ability to handle money and the [End Page 700] freedom to travel, they did not become leaders in the slave community. Whites took them seriously when it came to horses, but this regard did not translate into much benefit to their families or, since they were often sold, to themselves. The main figure in Mooney's discussion of enslaved horsemen is Stewart. As in her account of the races, she crafts striking moments in his life—such as his decision to sell his wife and children in order to buy a horse—quite well. However, such odd events are difficult to shape into generalizations.

In many cases, Mooney has culled her core material from sporting magazines such as the Spirit of the Times, the American Turf Register, and the Turf, Field and Farm, as well as other, more broadly popular publications like Harper's and the New York Times. Despite the sometimes sensationalist quality of this material, Mooney does an excellent job of hammering it into shape and applying analysis and context derived from up-to-date scholarship and archival work. But while these stories really shine, Mooney often has difficulty joining them with the broader context. Her sections on the business of racing, the politics of sectionalism, the rise of the postbellum industrial elite, and biographies of the prominent (and often colorful) whites who played important roles in the history of the American track seem more dutiful than inspired.

In the second half of the book, after quick treatment of the Civil War, Mooney turns to her final act: the rise of New York's racing scene and the accompanying expulsion...


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pp. 700-702
Launched on MUSE
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