'She just wanted to ride': New book features America’s first female Black jockey
Cheryl White became the first female Black jockey licensed to ride in America in 1971. She was a barrier-breaking athlete, winning hundreds of races and yet is still largely unknown.
A new book released on Tuesday aims to change that.
New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin-Nir teamed up with Cheryl’s brother to author a book for middle school-aged children about Cheryl's legacy.
The book, titled “The Jockey and Her Horse” is inspired by Cheryl's historic career and love for riding.
KVPR’s Elizabeth Arakelian interviewed Maslin-Nir about the book. Listen to the interview in the audio player on this page, or read the transcript below.
"That's what we're trying to say — go be like Cheryl, pass the finish line, it’s yours for the taking."Sarah Maslin-Nir
ARAKELIAN: This is KVPR News, I’m Elizabeth Arakelian. In 1971, Cheryl White became the first female Black jockey licensed to ride in America. She was a barrier-breaking athlete, winning hundreds of races and yet is still largely unknown. New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin-Nir collaborated with Cheryl’s brother to tell her story. It’s a book for middle schoolers called “The Jockey and Her Horse” and was released today.
I asked Maslin-Nir to contextualize Cheryl’s role in racing.
MASLIN-NIR: Cheryl isn't singular. She is part of a long and erased legacy of Black contribution to thoroughbred racing. The way thoroughbred racing was done in its early days was, you ran the horses you owned with the humans you owned on their backs. People went to West Africa to purchase humans for their equestrian skills because there's a long legacy of equestrianism in West Africa — kidnapped and brought them to America where they underpinned the sport. Cheryl didn't know any of this. She was divorced from her own history as many people as part of the Black experience are. But, she knew she wanted to ride. And so, on the 50th anniversary of her first ride, I went to explore what happened to Cheryl. Where was she, why wasn't she part of the narrative?
ARAKELIAN: Is there anyone we can compare Cheryl to today, in terms of her significance or contribution to her sport?
MASLIN-NIR: Her brother, my co-author of the book, “The Jockey and Her Horse,” Raymond White says it's important to note she wasn't a novelty. She was a great athlete with 750 career wins. She went on to have success after this pioneering feet and the grandstands were full. She was a Serena and Venus Williams of her time.
ARAKELIAN: Why don't we know her? She was so historic. How can someone who broke such barriers not be a household name?
MASLIN-NIR: It's a great question, but it's a very common phenomenon because the story of Black excellence isn't one that has been part of the American narrative. It's an honor with the family of Cheryl White — this pioneering incredible, teenage gal who broke every barrier — to remind people she was here. Black people have always been part of thoroughbred racing and we're ready to inspire the next generation.
ARAKELIAN: How did you connect with her brother to tell Cheryl’s story?
MASLIN-NIR: I met with the Whites in 2021, so not that long ago. We just got so excited about it. And I think when I sat with them at the edge of this race track, where Cheryl had run her first race at Thistledown in Ohio, I said ‘This should be a book and this should be a toy.’ Spoiler alert — it's a book and we have a toy. So the Breyer model horse company, which is a legacy model toy company, made the first ever real Black equestrian in its 75 year history and it is a little Cheryl and her winning horse, Jetolara, and our book “The Jockey and Her Horse” as a gift package. It is just an honor that the White family gave me the trust to share their story, you know. It's important to note. I'm a white woman and, you know, the Whites and I worked collaboratively to really make sure we got the voice [of the book] exactly right.
ARAKELIAN: What was your process? And not only this discovery of a topic that you're passionate about, but then relaying it in this format to other people
MASLIN-NIR: Raymond White and I felt it was very important to tell this as a middle grade story because Cheryl's story was one of inspiration. We didn't write it to inspire kids to become jockeys — that would be great. But we wrote it, Raymond likes to say to inspire them to become astronauts, senators, whatever they want to be. Nobody looked like Cheryl when she was trying to do this feat. There was no one for her to model herself on and yet she went and did it anyway. And that's what we're trying to say — go be like Cheryl, pass the finish line, it’s yours for the taking.
ARAKELIAN: So if Cheryl were here today, what do you think that she would think about this book and you collaborating with her family to tell her story?
MASLIN-NIR: Well, I never got to meet Cheryl. She passed away in 2019. Unfortunately, very suddenly. She would hate it. She really wasn't a self-promoter. She downplayed her legend because she just wanted to ride. She was pushed out of the sport of thoroughbred racing to a degree. She was a triumphant accomplished mega-talent and she ended up sort of marginalized, riding in California at the county fair circuit. So I think Cheryl may grudgingly be pleased that there's a doll and a book and maybe even a movie in her name, but she'd say, ‘just let me ride.’
ARAKELIAN: That was New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin-Nir, the co-author of “The Jockey and Her Horse” written with Cheryl White’s brother, Raymond White Jr. It’s available today. Thanks, Sarah.
MASLIN-NIR: Thank you so much.