Horseplayer, NYRA/Fox Analyst, Co-creator In The Money Media
What if one of racing’s biggest moments had a Black person at the center?
Other sports have had such moments, from Doug Williams winning the Super Bowl to Tiger Woods’s first Masters victory to Venus Williams winning Wimbledon. These moments made these sports more appealing to Black people because they saw people who looked like them achieving success at the highest levels.
Racing in the modern era is still waiting for that moment. And for a sport that’s been so traditionally white, that’s been a barrier to Black people becoming fans and feeling welcome, even though we’re 20 years into the 21st Century.
I don’t believe that people in horse racing are plotting to keep Black people out. But what they are doing–relying on networks of people they already know–means keeping mostly white people in the game, particularly at its highest levels. Horse racing needs to change, from the top to the bottom, and it’s racing’s job to do the hard work of stretching beyond its usual networks to recruit Black talent and to create an environment where Black people feel welcome.
How does this happen? With many, many small changes and many, many tough conversations.
In the last year of his presidency, President Obama was on WTF with Marc Maron (a podcast just slightly more successful than JK + 1). He likened the process of change to the steering of an ocean liner and said that the real work “is to make incremental improvements or try to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south so that, 10 years from now, suddenly we’re in a very different place than we were. At the moment, people may feel like we need a 50-degree turn; we don’t need a two-degree turn. And you say, ‘Well, if I turn 50 degrees, the whole ship turns over.'”
There are ways that racing can change right now, but in the big picture, the type of incremental change described above is also needed. The idea that EVERYTHING needs to change RIGHT NOW isn’t just impractical, it’s impossible. I am much more interested in pursuing real world solutions than I am at screaming into the void.
How do we actually accomplish change? Let’s start by creating a more welcoming environment for people of color. One part of this has to be marketing. Major international brands like McDonald’s, Sprite, and the NBA have figured out ways to tailor their marketing to Black people in a way that is cool but not patronizing. This idea has been around since the 1960s and there’s no reason racing can’t make a concerted effort to invest in this type of plan in a non-cynical way today.
I’ve seen racing do a great job marketing to local colleges in both Lexington and the Capitol region, and I know these efforts have created fans. Why not put some promotional muscle at targeting Black communities, whether via historically Black colleges or other institutions that have significant Black populations. Smart group sales initiatives aimed at such groups can draw Black fans AND help them feel welcome at the track, and not like the only Black face in the crowd.
Other sports have done a great job of celebrating Black success in their sports–Major League Baseball’s various tributes to Jackie Robinson come to mind–and I don’t think we’ve done enough of that in racing. With all respect to the listed sprint stakes at Aqueduct in January, Jimmy Winkfield is a major historical figure in racing, the last Black jock to win the Derby before the sport was segregated. There should be a race at Churchill Downs named for him on the first Saturday in May. That’s the day when the most eyes are watching and therefore the most Black eyes are trained on the sport as well–let’s show all those viewers that the Black contributions to this game are appreciated.
And what about other historical figures like Isaac Murphy or Oliver Lewis? Or even a much more recent figure who experienced terrifying prejudice because of the color of his skin, like Angel Cordero, Jr? Let’s name races for them and spend a lot more time celebrating their stories and openly acknowledging the role that black and brown people have always played and continue to play in the game. There’s a lot more that can be done to honor the past while welcoming the future.
I am a big believer in industry-sponsored scholarships to programs like RTIP in Arizona or the University of Louisville equine business program or the University Kentucky equine sciences program. Today’s students are tomorrow’s executives and Grade I winning trainers. Something that well-meaning people at the highest levels of the game can do right away is to create scholarship initiatives like these–they could change the game forever. And while we’re at it, why aren’t we doing more to recruit young people to industry positions via historically Black colleges?
Last but not least, I want to get down to the everyday of what can be done to make Black patrons feel more welcome. I know that Black people stand out at the track. I’m not the only one who has gotten to play America’s least-fun game: “Is that dude looking at me because he likes my shirt, or because I’m Black?” And I have personally been asked to have my ticket seen approximately 2.7 times as often as my white friends. There needs to be sensitivity training in this area, for ticket takers and ushers. Marketing can help here too by disseminating fan images that include plenty of Black faces.
And, on an individual level, encourage your Black friends to come to the track for a day of socializing and drinking and betting. If you’re an owner, invite your Black friends and acquaintances to get involved in the new filly you bought.
I understand that there is a thin line between being condescending and inclusive, but I challenge people to walk that line. If you see a Black person at the track, say hello, ask him who he likes in the Double. Horseplayers are a special community and anyone can be a part of that.
I think we need more open and honest discourse on these issues from all people–and I highly recommend that it doesn’t take place on Twitter. Horse racing Twitter can be a strange place, fueled by outrage. Throw race into the mix and it’s like lighting a fuse on a powder keg. Let’s have these conversations in the rooms where decisions are made and marketing budgets are set, and in the stands where we’d usually argue over whether or not to include that 20-1 first-time starter with the sneaky work in the Pick 5.
We need fewer statements and more conversations. Between Black people. Between white people. And of course between Black and white people. They won’t always be the most comfortable conversations but that’s OK. It’s only through honest discourse that we can redirect this big, old ship and make the moment I wish for above possible.