LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As Rich Strike burst into the horseracing spotlight with his upset victory in the Kentucky Derby in just over two minutes, he shared the stage with his handler, who has long toiled in the shadows, constantly tending to the winning colt.
Rich Strike’s attention stems from his victory as a nearly 81-1 long shot, but groom Jerry Dixon Jr.’s newfound recognition comes from being one of the few black riders left in the sport, who was once of been dominated by people who look like him.
“I totally get it because I looked at something about the derby and saw there were black people in the beginning.” said Dixon, 31, and a fourth-generation rider who works with his father — trainer Jerry Sr. — for Eric Reed, who trains Rich Strike.
“And then, years later, you can see the change, like we’re slowly fading away.”
A lack of diversity is one of the biggest obstacles to growth in horse racing, along with inconsistent safety and medication standards. The government stepped in to address safety and doping concerns, but there is no national program to increase diversity – by gender or race – in the industry.
That wasn’t always the case for African Americans, who played a key role in early derby history and thoroughbred racing.
From 1875 to 1902, black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 derbies. Isaac Murphy had three wins, and Willie Simms and Jimmy Winkfield each won twice. Blacks also owned and trained Thoroughbreds in the early 20th century before segregation and Jim Crow laws in the South pushed many away from horse racing by restricting jockey licensing and ownership.
This story is fairly well known, but what is new is how the already small number of black people who are still involved in sports appear to be shrinking.
A handful of black riders can be seen around the back barns of the racetracks working as trainers, grooms and hot hikers, but their numbers are small compared to the overwhelming presence of Latino workers.
As there is no governing body in horse racing, exact figures are not available. However, no one denies demographic change.
“What racism did to America, Caucasians didn’t want to see black people have stuff like that.” said historian and horseman John Taylor Jr.
“And as time went by and black people stopped caring about the sport and stopped working at the back, you started to see the (Latinos) coming in. We used to do the jobs they do now.”
Economy and the time spent tending horses are factors often cited for the small number of blacks and whites working in the barns. But while Saturday’s Belmont Stakes — the final leg of the Triple Crown — pays out $1.5 million in prize money, everyday races are much less lucrative with smaller payouts that need to be split in multiple ways between owners, coaches and workers .
It doesn’t make a lavish lifestyle.
Many backside workers at Churchill Downs live in dormitories near or above the barns. Compared to other industries that pay higher wages and offer set hours with health benefits, horse racing is a daily chore that requires getting up well before dawn to train and care for horses. Then come back in the afternoon to do it again. Days off are hard to come by.
The riders interviewed for this story declined to talk about pay rates, pay grades and benefits — which can vary. They’re quick to point out that horse racing isn’t 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 grandpa would have told you I learned to walk when I went to the barn.” said Simms, whose great-grandfather, grandfather and uncle are among several relatives in racing.
“You can go to Target and probably make $15 an hour or something. And you work five days a week” said Simms. “It’s really something you have to be passionate about, to get up and do it every day.”
The stables are an entry point into horse racing, but Greg Harbut is working to increase black participation in all phases of the sport, including thoroughbred ownership and management.
Third generation rider and partner Ray Daniels runs the Ed Brown Society and Living The Dream Stables, a purebred, minority-owned syndicate. The two teamed with stallion Necker Island, who finished ninth in the 2020 Kentucky Derby.
EBS recently partnered with Churchill Downs for an internship program to continue a previous partnership with the Stronach Group, which owns Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course and Santa Anita Park in California. The Society has two college interns currently working in Santa Anita and seeks to introduce current and future generations to horse racing.
“If you look at a lot of minorities, they’ve removed two to three generations where they couldn’t even go to someone for the history, the horsemanship or a mentor.” said Harbut, whose great-grandfather, Will Harbut, was a groom to legendary Thoroughbred Man o’War.
“And that’s really what’s missing” Harbut said. “The art of horsemanship was not passed on from generation to generation as it used to be.”
But the involvement of the Dixons, Harbut and Simms shows it’s still there. And they hope their involvement in the sport in a variety of capacities will help raise awareness in the black community.
Rich Strike’s overwhelming derby win certainly paid off Jerry Dixon Jr. in more ways than one.
“I know it’s important to our culture because we need a different way, a different way of looking at things, to try something that most people don’t like to step out of their comfort zone for.” said Dixon, who wants 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 off, working alongside a derby winner is a dream come true.”
AP Sports Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.
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Copyright 2022 The Associated Press.
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