@Book{ mooney2014,
    author = {Katherine C. Mooney},
    title = {Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom were Made at the Racetrack},
    address = {Cambridge, Mass.},
    publisher = {Harvard University Press},
    year = 2014,

Chapter 1

The racetrack served, in the antebellum United States, as a way to resolve tensions between democracy and aristocracy (by providing an arena for “democratic mastery” and gentlemanly display), striving parvenus and wealthy elites, slave owners and non-slaveholders, Northerners and Southerners (through races that crossed sectional lines), and (to some extent) enslaved horsemen and their owners. On this last point, Mooney provides a very sensitive exploration of the lives of enslaved horsemen who epitomized both the attempts of enslavers to physically reconfigure the bodies of slaves (i.e., the extreme rituals that black jockeys endured) and the “circumscribed certainty” (p. 54) that some elite black horsemen won because of their roles at the track (i.e., mobility, high regard from white men, some extra cash).1

Some key quotes. p. 38:

The racetrack was thus a place that bound together Northerners and Southerners, aspiring and established freemen, in a fashion designed both to embrace the chaotic possibilities of Jacksonian America and reaffirm established hierarchies. Men in power demonstrated that they had earned their authority with skills and proficiences long associated with social and political mastery. They found ways to judge and accept potential new partners whom Jacksonian democracy brought into their orbit. Perhaps most of all the track allowed Southern masters to solidify the bonds of their slave society and to illustrate for Northern comrades and hesitant political and economic partners that their system was a strong and secure one that should be left alone to function. The racetrack’s rituals smoothed Southern social divides and secured Southern prominence within the Union. And like many places of ritual, the track was full of ghosts.

p. 32, on presence of slave traders and parvenus at track as respectable turfmen:

Repugnant as many Northerners may have found such men, they knew well the tensions and benefits of economic mobility and joined with Southerners in viewing the racetrack as an acknowledged and userful site to display aspiration and police and reward successful advancement.

p. 34:

Racing, turfmen understood, served as a valuable institution of cohesion in a contentious democracy in which elites vied for power while voters, factions, and regions disputed how that power was to be allocated.

p. 36:

While the races served to tighten the bonds and paper over the divides between North and South, established and aspiring, rich man and yeoman, for white masters they performed a final and essential task. They displayed and strengthened a unified slave society. The making of mastery was a constant process, and the racetrack was one of the crucial sites where it was manufactured.

p. 52:

… what the lives of black horsemen reveal about their relationships with white men, at least from the perspective of the white men involved, is the degree to which violence and degradation, affection and dependence existed simultaneously and without self-conscious contradiction or cunning hypocrisy. These slaves were different, certainly, but their difference did not necessarily accord dignity to their status as human beings.

Chapter 2

Opens with the story of Charles Stewart, an enslaved horseman who helps demonstrate that the privileges afforded to black jockets and stable managers did not undermine the system of slavery but helped to reinforce and sustain it. Discusses the spread of American racing’s center of gravity to the Southwest and Mississippi River Valley in the 1830s and 1840s, as well as the founding of The Spirit of the Times—the wide-ranging periodical that connected a far-flung community of turfmen in North and South and stepped delicately around sectional issues like slavery (72-76). The politics of Southern turfmen was Whiggish and supportive of the American System of Henry Clay, himself a horse breeder whose image of his stock farm served as an image of the American economy in miniature that Whigs hoped to create.

Chapter 3

A famous race between Lexington and Lecomte continues the discussion of the geographical reorientation of racing to the Kentucky-Deep South axis, tracking the movement of slavery and the slave trade. The national fame of enslaved jockey “Abe” (compared to the more local fame of Charles Stewart) also highlights the increasingly national aspirations of turfmen, which tracked the national visions of slaveholders who believed that slavery and national progress went hand in hand. Sectional crisis put increasing pressure on that belief, however. (Key pages: 91-93, 95, 97)

Chapter 4

After the start of the Civil War, Southern turfmen tried, initially, to recreate a racing culture within the Confederacy, but racing overall was disrupted both by the impressment of horses for military uses and by the resistance and flight of black horsemen. A new class of turf parvenus in the North and Upper South began to emerge, while in the South, the Thoroughbred and the horse remained powerful symbols of the mastery Confederates were fighting for.

Chapter 5

After the war, the track served as another site for the reconciliationist mode of national reunion. Stories of black horsemen’s seeming loyalty to white South played into narratives of “faithful slaves” and an end to animosity between the sections. (See the stories about Abe, now Abe Hawkins, on p. 167.) The coverage of the Longfellow and Harry Bassett race (which Mooney told me Zebulon Ward was involved in as a correspondent of the Spirit of the Times) exemplifies the point. Meanwhile, racing continued another geographic reorientation, this time to the North and Wall Street.


  • David McDaniel of North Carolina another example of a turfman who was also embedded in the slave trade as a Richmond dealer (see p. 141)

  1. Mooney notes, in reference to work by johnson1999 and johnson2013 on “the role of violence in forcing slave bodies to conform to white masters’ expectations and fantasies,” that “what happened to jockeys is the most explicit form of this set of practices I have seen” (p. 258n91).