Cheryl White was first out of the gate
The story of the first black female jockey in the United States
Ace Reward got off to a beautiful start in the fifth race at Cleveland’s Thistledown Race Track. For about three-eighths of a mile in the $2,600, six-furlong race, it looked as if the filly would carry her rider to a historic victory.
As Cheryl White rode atop her father’s horse on June 15, 1971, she became the first black female jockey in the United States. This outing was the first of two scheduled probationary rides for the 5-foot-3, 107-pound White as she tried to make more history as the first nonwhite woman licensed to jockey.
“Of course I’m rather excited about the chance to be the first black girl to get a jockey’s license,” she told the Chicago Daily Defender on June 10, 1971. “I’ve been accepted to Bowling Green College for next fall, but I’m going to wait until 1972. My ambition is to be a rider and to teach math in high school.”
But Ace Reward ultimately would not reward White in her first outing on a commercial track, in a regular-betting race against male riders. The 17-year-old finished dead last in an 11-maiden field. Reporters asked White if she planned to celebrate her historic ride.
“For finishing last?” she joked to The Baltimore Sun.
In her second probationary ride, White and her horse Babuanna also finished last.
“I didn’t expect to win,” White told the Chicago Daily Defender on June 15, 1971. “I expected to be nervous, but found out I wasn’t. I just wanted to look as good as I could because I knew the stewards were watching me.”
It took no time for White to bounce back from those last-place finishes. By June 26, 1971, the Thistledown stewards were more than satisfied with White’s ability to handle a horse and ride, and she was granted an apprentice license. Fresh off her graduation from Grand Valley High School in Orwell, Ohio, White went on to compete atop Filly Lexilou in the day’s fifth race.
White was Jet’s cover girl on July 29, 1971, just one month after earning her license. And little more than a month after that, she rode her father’s horse Jetolara to victory at Waterford Park (Chester, West Virginia) on Sept. 2 to become the first black woman in American thoroughbred racing history to finish first. For every mount she had at that time she earned $35, plus 10 percent of her horse’s earning for a first-place finish.
White never got a chance to ride in the Triple Crown races, but she finished her 21-year career with 750 races won and approximately $762,624 in earnings. White was one of 18 people honored at the Bluegrass Black Business Association’s African-Americans in Thoroughbred Racing Industry Awards in 1994.
She was the first female jockey to win two races in the same day in different states: Thistledown in the afternoon and Waterford Park in the evening. And on Oct. 19, 1983, White became the first woman in California to ride five winners in the same day, as well as the first woman to become a steward in the state in 1992.
“I was raised around horses all my life and I always wanted to be a lady jockey,” she told the Call and Post on June 26, 1971. “I love to ride, for it is a challenge to the male jockeys and also a challenge to myself.
“If they can make money being a jockey, I want to make some as a girl jockey. Let us try it out first, then give us a chance to participate.”
Horses were all White knew as a child. Her father, Raymond White, started his jockey career in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1924 and rode in Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati and other cities.
Raymond White trained horses while he was jockeying and got his license to ride in 1930 at Washington Park in Chicago. Before his final ride at Coney Island in Cincinnati in 1934, he started two horses at the Kentucky Derby.
White’s mother, Doris, was a Polish woman who bred mares and owned three horses that ran at Thistledown. So White was around horses every day and learned the ins and outs of how to care for and ride them.
Raymond White gave his daughter a pony when she was 5 years old, and at the same age she learned how to guide horses.
“The next horse she bought herself,” her father said with a smile to the Call and Post. “She always had the urge to be a jockey. She told us she was going to ride, so we encouraged her.”
White committed herself to learning her trade and learning her books, finishing ranked ninth in her class of 87 students and one of only nine black seniors at Grand Valley.
But when it came time for White to decide whether she wanted to pursue her degree in mathematics at Bowling Green on a scholarship or advance her career in racing, she chose the latter.
She did so at a good time, because three years before White started riding, Kathy Kusner won a court battle to become the first licensed female jockey.
“I probably learned to ride almost before I could walk,” White told the Star Beacon in 2007. “It was just natural. I’ve always loved horses. And I was always a bit of a tomboy.”
Through the first seven months of 1972, White had 12 first-place finishes, 21 second-place results and 19 third-place finishes in 231 mounts, earning approximately $31,583.
One of her best performances in her sophomore year of racing was when White took first in a 14-horse field, $7,500 Boots and Bows Handicap in Atlantic City, New Jersey, that included top female riders Diane Crump and Patti Barton.
Known for her quick starts, White broke from the post in the 14th spot. By the mile and one-eighth mark, she had moved up a spot, and by the quarter, she was in ninth place.
At the half, she worked her way up to seventh, and as White made her way to the finish line, she began to gain on the leader, Mary Clifford, and her maiden Hellamber. White won on the horse that finished fourth in the race the year before.
Just 12 months earlier, White was bringing up the back in the nine-horse field, while this time around she was the leader and pocketed $450 for her efforts.
“I’m pretty proud of how my racing career went,” White told the Beacon. “I just wish I had been given more opportunities, which I think I might have had if I had stayed back east.
“I was hoping to do some racing at Pimlico [site of the Preakness Stakes] because of some contacts my dad had in Maryland. But I don’t think they were interested in having another female jockey there, and they were kind of old-fashioned, so it didn’t happen.”
Tired of the cold weather and hoping for new opportunities at major tracks, White moved to California at a friend’s urging in 1975.
White wasn’t given the opportunity to ride good mounts, so she shifted to county fair meets, quarter horses and riding Appaloosas, and she found immediate success.
“I wanted to be that big fish, but I learned early that was tough out there,” she told the Beacon. “I think people liked me riding in those races because I was good getting out of the gate and those races are so short. They’re usually only about 4 1⁄2 furlongs, just a little over half a mile.”
White earned the Appaloosa Horse Club’s Jockey of the Year in 1977, 1983, 1984 and 1985.
In 1989, White suffered a dislocated hip and began looking toward life after being a jockey. She passed the California Horse Racing Board’s steward’s test in 1991 and became an assistant steward in 1995. She rode her last race in 1992.
Her goal to become a racing steward, whose responsibilities included the track’s operations, was halted when she was suspended in 1997 for betting. A year later, she paid the veterinary bill for a horse that didn’t belong to her and had her license revoked. Eventually, she would be fully reinstated and regain her license.
As of 2007, White was working in California as a supervisor for jockey weigh-ins and rules infractions.
“I believe she’s had a little of a raw deal,” said Clifford Sise Jr., a colleague of White’s, to the Louisville Courier-Journal on April 9, 2007. “The racing board turns their head on some people’s mistakes. It’s just like all the people who take the steward’s test. Cheryl and some others are more deserving than some of those they put on tracks. She’s a good horsewoman who knows the business inside out.”