In the 19th century in the southern United States, black jockeys ruled the horse racing world. The sport was centered mostly in the south, and white plantation owners entrusted their prized racehorses to the slaves who worked on their farms and in their stables. The skill of the riders, and thus the success of the horses, was a point of pride to the men who owned both the humans and the animals competing in the US’s first organized sport.
After the civil war, the dominance of black horsemen, both jockeys and trainers, continued. At the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, 13 of the 15 riders were African American, and black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 editions of the Derby. But since 1922, only two black jockeys have ridden in the Kentucky Derby: Marlon St Julien in 2000 and Kevin Krigger in 2013.
CJ McMahon hopes that he’ll be next.
A third-generation African American horseman, McMahon started riding Quarter Horses as a child at his grandfather’s Louisiana farm, turning professional four years ago when he was 16.
“I was like two weeks old and they put me on a horse,” said McMahon recently, sitting in the track kitchen at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas. “My mom and dad said I just fell in love with the animals.”
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Cover photo credit Dustin Orona