By Britney Grover
Cheryl White was just 17 years old in 1971 when she became the first female Black jockey in history—but you’ve probably never heard of her. Her brother Raymond White Jr. is on a mission to write Cheryl, who passed away in 2019, back into history, where this barrier-breaking pioneer belongs. She is the subject of his new book, “The Jockey and Her Horse.”
Raymond and Cheryl were part of an equestrian legacy even before they were born. Their father, Raymond’s namesake, trained racehorses when few other trainers looked like him, as a Black man. “When I was a child, I don’t know if I thought that way—I don’t know if I saw things in Black and white as a kid growing up on the track,” Raymond said. “The racetrack was always a family, regardless.”
Raymond was too young to realize the racing forum was making a point when his father’s horse Kings Bay won and the article read, “Kings Bay trained by Negro trainer Raymond White.” “Dad ran horses in the Kentucky Derby at a time when the grandstand was segregated,” Raymond said. “He could race his horse, but he wouldn’t have been allowed to sit in the grandstand and watch it run.”
It was Raymond Sr.’s example that set the stage for his daughter, Cheryl, to become the first Black female jockey, a profession women were barred from until 1968 when a group of women sued for the right to race; they were all white. Raymond was always proud of his big sister. Though Cheryl avoided the spotlight herself, Raymond knew she deserved recognition. He’s teamed up with New York Times journalist and author Sarah Maslin Nir to make sure Cheryl’s story becomes the inspiration to many that it deserves to be—and that people need today.
“The Jockey and Her Horse” will release September 5, 2023, as the second in Sarah’s “Once Upon a Horse” series of middle-grade novels—this one based on Cheryl’s incredible true story and co-authored with Raymond, who lives in Mt. Gilead, Ohio.
How long have you been part of the horse world?
My whole life. The first thing I did was horses; I was raised on a farm in Rome, Ohio, and I remember being on the farm, riding horses and horses just being a part of my life. I remember mucking out stalls, feeding the horses, watering them, helping foal them, even as a small kid! When I was young, I had to sit vigil with mares about to drop foals. I helped deliver many horse babies—which did not prepare me for my son being born, like I thought it would!
My dad, Raymond White Sr., was a racehorse trainer, so it is all I’ve ever known. He was a true horseman. He was known in the racing industry as one of the best horsemen ever; he could do everything. He could shoe his own horses, he could back his own horse. When he came up in the business, way, way back when in the 1930s and ’40s, he had to be able to do everything. He could make poultices, his own medicines. He was what we would call in today’s world a “holistic trainer.” He didn’t use drugs on horses; it was all about the horse, and waiting for that horse to tell him when that horse was ready to run. He respected and loved the animal.
As a Black man, he ran Raymond White Racing Stables, and partnered with my mother, Doris Jean Gorske, who was white. He trained for some of the wealthiest people out there, he was that respected—including, family legend tells us, Al Capone! Looking back, I realize my father is more legendary than I even knew. I wish I could talk to him today, knowing what I know now. He was my dad; I kind of took him for granted. I didn’t realize what he had achieved in the context of being a trainer, and being a Black man. I looked at my dad as my dad, and my dad was my hero; he was superman to me, he was indestructible. But I didn’t know the full context of what he had achieved as a Black equestrian.
Tell us about your sister Cheryl and what she accomplished in her life.
In 1971, when she was just 17 years old, my big sister Cheryl White became the first female Black jockey to ride in America. I was just 9 years old when she started training for her jockey’s license, but I knew what she was accomplishing. I was proud of my sister. Every grandstand of every race was filled to the brim with spectators trying to watch her make history, and every finish line was covered with reporters. But she was more excited to be a jockey; she didn’t promote herself. She actually turned down interviews with some major magazines, because she was just tired of it as they chronicled every step of her journey to become a licensed jockey. She wanted to focus on racing. She was not the publicity type; she just wanted to be left alone and focus on her goal: the finish line. But even as a little kid, I made sure that people came to be in her orbit—I even grabbed a famous baseball player I saw in the grandstands once to join her in the winner’s circle—I did it because I wanted people to know how special she was.
What types of challenges did Cheryl overcome?
She was always confident in her abilities; there was no lack of confidence. But my father did not want her to be a jockey at first. He was a traditionalist, and thought men should be jockeys. He wanted me to be his jockey. But Cheryl had the talent, the drive—and was the right height. I’m too tall! Yet Cheryl knew what she wanted, and my dad became a champion of female jockeys after that. For the rest of his career, we had many, many women jockeys ride for us.
But what my sister Cheryl did was singular. There were no Black girl jockeys at that time and that era. Women had only just sued for the right to ride in races in 1968, and they were all white women. As a kid, I didn’t realize how turbulent this country was at the time Cheryl made her bid, all the racism, and here my sister was right in the middle of this storm. Looking back at it, it’s amazing. She didn’t disclose the backlash she got. She probably heard things that she never told us, she was such a tough cookie. When I’d ask her, even as adults, her famous line to me was, “I don’t remember,” but I think maybe she blocked it out. Maybe that was how she got through all of it.
Tell us a little about Black jockeys through history.
Enslaved Black people were the lifeblood of Thoroughbred racing. In racing’s earliest days, people ran the horses they owned with the humans they owned on their backs. It’s not a history that racing has truly reckoned with, and I hope our book changes that. The first 13 winners of the first 15 Kentucky Derbies were Black men, and the trainer whose horse won the first race ever was a self-emancipated enslaved person. They were pushed out of the sport starting in the 1930s as it became a more lucrative profession. But they’ve returned, and some, like my family, stuck around. Black jockeys and trainers continue to persist and excel in the sport. I hope Cheryl’s book encourages more, particularly women, to know that there has always been a place for them at a track and on a racehorse’s back.
What prompted you and Sarah to write the book?
Sarah is a New York Times reporter with a deep interest in horses. She’s written several books, including “Horse Crazy: The Story of a Woman and a World in Love with an Animal” and her kids’ series, “Once Upon a Horse.” In 2021 she flew to Thistledown Racetrack, where Cheryl had her first ride, to meet me and my family for a New York Times story about the 50th anniversary of Cheryl’s pioneering accomplishment. We just totally clicked, and decided Cheryl’s story needed to be shared even more widely. I call Sarah family; together we’ve taken Cheryl’s story to places I never even dreamed. It’s been optioned for two movies and now she even has a toy by Breyer that we debuted at BreyerFest!
What are you hoping your book will accomplish?
I hope that it will inspire kids from all walks of life to be able to follow their dreams. It’s for Cheryl’s space in history to be recognized, and for people to know who she is. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and they say, “I had no idea!” They never knew she existed. It’s hurtful. There’s a saying, “I am my brother’s keeper.” Well, I don’t have a brother, so I am my sister’s keeper, and my goal is to share her story with the world. It’s my job to get her story told.
Are you excited about the Breyer gift box? What would Cheryl have thought about that?
Cheryl downplayed the fact that she was a legend. Even when she ran a race of top female jockeys called Lady Legends, she scoffed that anyone would want to come see her ride. I don’t think she fully realized what she accomplished; she just wanted to compete. Now with this toy, kids can actually see Cheryl and dream of what they can accomplish, like her.
What’s the best thing about your life?
It all comes down to family, and my pets are family, too. My son, my daughter-in-law, the new matriarch of the family, my grandchildren. I have great friends, too. Life is about people, it’s about connections. And I’m so lucky to have such deep ones with the people I love.
What’s the best-kept secret about what you do?
I have conversations with my dog like she’s a person. I’m sure that’s something horse people can understand! It probably comes from growing up talking with my horses.
What’s in the future for you and your family?
Getting back into horses is something we’re looking into. I know how to train a racehorse. I know how to get a horse ready for a race without a doubt, and I know how to do it safely for the animal. We’d love to get back into it to show it can be done in the right way, where the horse is king or queen and taken care of. I want to pass on my knowledge to my son, Raymond. That’s the White family’s next adventure.
Photo courtesy of the White Family