On June 15, 1971, Cheryl White discovered herself in the starting gate at Thistledown Racetrack aboard a horse called Ace Reward. It had been her first raceand she was extremely focused.
“I just needed those gates to open,” she informed me recently. “I was not nervous and knew I would be first out and get the lead.”
Cheryl was right. She took control in the 2,600, six-furlong event, and for nearly half the race, she looked like a winner. But Ace Reward and White would finish dead of 11 horses. Nonetheless, Cheryl White had made history with her ride, getting the first African-American female jockey of our time.
Cheryl grew up around horses and other critters.
“We moved into the country once I was really young, so I recall being around horses and being really comfortable around them. And we had all types other animals,” she said.
White came from racing inventory. Her father, Raymond, began his career as a jockey in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1924 and rode in Chicago, Cleveland and Cincinnati, among other areas. Raymond began training horses toward the conclusion of the riding career and even conditioned two horses that ran in the Kentucky Derby. Cheryl’s mother, Doris, was an owner whose horse often ran at Thistledown.
Cheryl was interested in becoming a jockey, and her parents were mostly supportive.
“They invited me, but with my father being in the horse industry, he wasn’t exactly in favor of female riders,” she said. “My Dad was just old school and did not believe, like most old timers, that women belonged around the racetrack. There was a time when women were not even permitted on the backstretch after five o’clock. However, my parents didn’t attempt to talk me out of it.”
White didn’t do any better in her next outing and ran dead last again, but it did not faze her. She had been awarded an apprentice permit on June 26, 1971, and 2 months later, it occurred. White rode her first winner on September 2, 1971 at Waterford Park on a horse called Jetolara, becoming the first black woman to win a thoroughbred horse race in the USA.
White received enough attention to be encouraged to the”Boots and Bows Handicap,” an all-female riders race in Atlantic City in 1972. She won on the longest shot on the board at a field of 14. But the race was not without controversy, as fellow riders Mary Bacon was angry at White after the race and accused her of coming on her horse. However, the two girls were friends and finally put the problem behind them.
White lasted riding in her recognizable circuit and held her own, but she needed more. While visiting friends in California in 1974, she decided to ply her trade in the hot and sunny Southern California tracks. But Santa Anita, Hollywood and Del Mar were just plain rough places to compete at, and several female riders found major success on the California circuit.
“I probably should have stayed in the east rather than heading west,” she told me. “I think the tracks on the East Coast and Midwest were much more accepting of women cyclists, at least thoroughbred-wise. There were always five or six at any track I had been at. Successful female jockeys on the East Coast, well, I do not think that they would have done as well in the western paths. They just would not have gotten the (great ) mounts as well as the chances that feminine jockeys had back east and in the Midwest.”
White shifted her attention to riding Quarter Horses, Paints and Appaloosas at the California County Fairs. She had a reputation for being fast from the gate and was in high demand on the California Fair circuit. She awakened the rider standings and earned the Appaloosa Horse Club’s Jockey of the Year 1977, 1983, 1984 and 1985 and has been inducted into the Appaloosa Hall of Fame in 2011.
Cheryl White also became the first female jockey to win two races in two different countries on precisely the exact same day after she rode a winner at Thistledown in Ohio in the afternoon and scored again in the evening at Waterford Park at West Virginia. She was also the first female jockey to win five races in one day, accomplishing that feat at Fresno Fair.
Back in 1989, White dislocated her hip and started making plans to obtain an easier way to make a living. In 1991, she passed on the California Horse Racing Board’s Steward Examination and rode her final race on July 25, 1992 at Los Alamitos and only happened to go out a winner. She’s since functioned as a racing official in various functions at several different racetracks. Since her retirement, White has ridden several times in charity events, competing with fellow retired female cyclists.
Today, White works thankfully as a placing judge at Mahoning Valley Race Course in Ohio. She has a brother and nephew that have an advertising business, Kabango Media. It gives the family pleasure to observe the title of the business, as it was named after one of Cheryl’s dad’s beloved horses, Kabango.
Although it appears White was severely underrated, she’d get some awards and coverage. In 1994, she was honored as one of the”Successful African Americans in the Thoroughbred Racing Industry” by the Bluegrass Black Business Association in Lexington, Kentucky. She was also honored by the National Girls and Women in Sports Day, introduced by the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, California in 2006.
I asked Cheryl if she could sum up her career in a couple of sentences.
“I had a long and relatively prosperous career winning 750 races. I got to retire on my terms and of my own choice and basically in one piece. I had been quite lucky to have had a job that I loved and had a passion for. A lot of people simply are not that lucky. It has been a long road, but it’s been an interesting and incredibly lucrative and enjoyable street,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything”
When I inquired about any probable strategies of retirement, Cheryl said,”Retire? Retire out of this? I had been a race track brat as a child, and I am probably going to die on the track!”
Cheryl White was a true pioneer in our sport, and one can just imagine the challenges she dared to pursue her career. She had been young and determined, ignored the drama and the bigots, and only put her head down and rode. She paved the way for countless individuals to pursue their own fantasies, both on and off the racetrack.
It is really fitting that Cheryl White went out a winner in her last race, as she’s certainly a winner in my book.
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