By GARY B. GRAVES, AP Sports Reporter
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — When Rich Strike stepped into the horse racing spotlight in just over two minutes with his upset victory in the Kentucky Derby, he shared the stage with his handler, who worked in the shadows for a long time, constantly caring for the champion colt.
Rich Strike’s attention stems from his nearly 81-1 win, but groom Jerry Dixon Jr.’s newfound recognition comes from the fact that he’s one of the few remaining black riders in the once people-dominated sport. who look like him.
“I totally understand that because I was watching something about the Derby and saw how there were black people at the start,” said Dixon, 31 and a fourth-generation rider who works with his father – the trainer Jerry Sr. – for Eric Reed. , which trains Rich Strike.
“And then years later you can see the change, like we’re slowly fading away.”
Lack of diversity is one of the biggest obstacles to the growth of horse racing, along with inconsistent safety and medication standards. The government has stepped in to address safety and doping issues, but there is no national program to increase diversity — by gender or race — in the industry.
This was not always the case for African Americans, who were a key part of Derby and Thoroughbred racing history.
Black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 Derbys with Isaac Murphy winning the marquee race three times from 1884 to 1891 before Willie Simms and Jimmy Winkfield each won twice between 1986 and 1902. Blacks also owned and trained pure- blood in the early 20th century before segregation and Jim Crow laws in the South kept many people away from horse racing by limiting the licensing and ownership of jockeys.
This story is pretty well known, but what’s new is that the few members of the black community still engaged in sports seem to be dwindling.
A handful of black riders can be seen around the barns at the back of the tracks working as trainers, grooms and hot walkers, but their numbers are sparse compared to the overwhelming presence of Latino workers.
With no governing body for horse racing, exact figures are not available. However, no one disputes the demographic change.
“What racism did in America, Caucasians didn’t want to see black people having stuff like that,” said historian and equestrian John Taylor Jr.
“And as time passed and black people stopped caring about the sport and working at the back, that’s when you started to see the (Latinos) coming. The jobs they do now, we did before.”
Economics and the time requirements of caring for horses are often cited factors in the low numbers of blacks and whites working in barns. But while Saturday’s Belmont Stakes – the final leg of the Triple Crown – pays out a purse of $1.5 million, the daily races are much less lucrative with smaller payouts that have to be split in multiple ways among owners , coaches and workers.
That doesn’t make for a lavish lifestyle.
Many backyard workers at Churchill Downs live in bunkhouses near or above barns. Compared to other industries that pay higher wages and offer fixed hours with health benefits, horse racing is a daily job that requires getting up well before sunrise to train and care for the horses. . Then, come back in the afternoon to do it again. Days off are hard to find.
Riders interviewed for this story declined to discuss pay rates, pay scales and benefits — which can vary. They are quick to point out that horse racing is not for everyone.
Riders like the Dixons and trainer Mark Simms Jr. say they do it for the love of animals and the sport. Not to mention it’s in their blood.
“My grandfather would have told you that I learned to walk walking to the barn,” said Simms, whose great-grandfather, grandfather and uncle are among several racing relatives. .
“You can go to Target and you can probably make $15 an hour or something. And you work five days a week,” Simms said. “It’s really something that you have to have the passion to do, to get up and do every day.”
Stables are an entry point into horse racing, but Greg Harbut is working to increase black involvement in all phases of the sport, including Thoroughbred ownership and management.
Third-generation rider and partner Ray Daniels includes leadership of the Ed Brown Society and Living The Dream Stables, a thoroughbred syndicate made up of minority owners. The two teamed up on colt Necker Island, which finished ninth in the 2020 Kentucky Derby.
EBS recently partnered with Churchill Downs for an internship program to follow on from a previous partnership with The Stronach Group, owners of Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and Santa Anita Park in California. The Society has two college interns currently working at Santa Anita and seeks to introduce current and future generations to horse racing.
“When you look at a lot of minorities, they’re two or three generations away where they couldn’t even go to someone to get history, horseback riding, or have a mentor to find,” said Harbut, whose grand -grandfather, Will Harbut, was groom of the legendary Thoroughbred Man o’War.
“And that’s really what’s missing,” Harbut said. “Horse riding has not been passed down from generation to generation as it once was.”
But the involvement of Dixon, Harbut and Simms shows that he is still there. And they hope their dedication to the sport in various capacities will help raise awareness in the black community.
Rich Strike’s astonishing Derby victory certainly paid off for Jerry Dixon Jr. on many levels.
“I know it’s important for our culture because we need a different way, a different view of things to try something that most people don’t like to step out of their comfort zone for.” said Dixon, who aims to be a coach like his father.
“Horse racing saved my life. I don’t know where I would be without horse racing and to top it all off being involved with a Derby winner is a dream come true.”
AP Sports Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.
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