Horse racing

During Triple Crown season, I write data journalism about horse racing. I figure other people spend 3 hours every weekend watching football or baseball games. I spend two minutes watching a horse race, and use the time I save to analyze data and write about it.

Here’s the first article I wrote, just before American Pharoah won the first Triple Crown in 37 years. I didn’t predict that American Pharoah would necessarily complete the Triple Crown, but I liked his chances better than California Chrome’s. I liked Pharoah’s chances not because I thought he was a better horse than Chrome, but because Pharoah had fewer horses racing against him. (This year I like Justify’s chances for the same reason.)

I’ve also debunked various myths about Triple Crown races, including the myth that post position matters at the Kentucky Derby, and that today’s horses are less capable of going the distance at the Belmont Stakes.

I’ve also written articles on jockeys’ gender, race, and ethnicity. 90 percent of recreational rid0ers are women, and women are about 7 times as likely as men to meet racing’s stringent weight requirements. Yet male jockeys outnumber female jockeys by 8 to 1 —  by 50 to 1 in top races — and many male jockeys ruin their health trying to keep their weights at levels that would be healthier for women.

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Unlike top jockeys, top exercise riders are often women–and often African American. In the week before the Kentucky Derby, 5 of the 20 horses were exercised by women, and 3 were exercised by black men. Here are two Kentucky Derby horses with their exercise riders.

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 Photo: Coady Photography. Article:

In fact, black men won half of the early Kentucky Derbies, and women have won the Belmont Stakes and major prep races. Yet since 2014, none of the jockeys who start the Kentucky Derby have been black or female. Why not?

Before the 2018 Belmont Stakes, NBC reporter Cathy Rainone called and asked if I thought there might be a #MeToo angle to the story. Could be, I said. I don’t personally know these jockeys, but given the power structure of the sport — with young women seeking opportunities to ride horses that are usually trained and owned by men — I would be surprised if there were no harassment. She went out, did some interviews, and wrote a magnificent story about sexual harrassment of women in horse racing.

Unlike women and black men, Hispanic men have had tremendous success as jockeys. The Latin invasion of horse racing started in the late 1950s, and today over half of all US jockeys — more in top races — have Latin American names.

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Contrary to popular wisdom, Latin Americans’ success is not due to their size. There are enough jockey-sized men–and an abundance of jockey-sized women–from other nationalities and ethnic groups. The prevalence of Latin American jockeys looks more like a classic immigrant niche, akin to Irish cops or Chinese laundromats. A couple of pioneering Panamanians had success in the late 1950s, and that opened the field to future waves of Latin Americans.  In addition, racing’s dangerous, insecure labor conditions have discouraged riders from more advantaged backgrounds, who often have who have safer and more secure career options.