Historic Firsts at Thistledown Racetrack

Historic Firsts at Thistledown Racetrack

Ryan Knuppel
3 years ago
2 min read
Historic Firsts at Thistledown Racetrack

With the $500,000 Ohio Derby taking place on Saturday at Thistledown, it’s appropriate to take a look at the role the Ohio race facility has had in the history of horse racing in the United States.

First Black Female Jockey

Cheryl White was the first African American female jockey in the history of horse racing in the United States when she made her debut at Thistledown Racetrack at the age of 17 on June 15, 1971. She made the start on Ace Reward in a six-furlong race and was able to grab an early lead before fading to finish in last place in the 11 horse field.

During a twenty-year career, White made 3,160 starts with a record of 227-294-285 and earnings of $762,624 for a 25.5% rate of finishes in the money. Her top year as a jockey was in 1986 when she rode horses to almost $93,000 in winnings.

White also was a staple on the fair circuit in California, where she went after four years of racing on the east coast. She struggled on the west coast, with fewer opportunities for female jockeys, but still estimated that she had over 750 wins at all levels of racing, including quarter horses.

After retiring from racing in 1992, White made another breakthrough by becoming the first woman of any race to serve as a California racing steward. The racing pioneer passed away at the age of 65 on September 20, 2019.

First Black Racing Officials

In 2004, Rick Walker became what was believed to be the first African American head starter in U.S. racing history when he assumed that position at Thistledown Racetrack. The then 39-year-old came from a racing family and had been working at Thistledown for seven years before becoming the assistant starter in 2001.

At the time, the track’s director of racing, Bill Couch, commented, “Rick is very horse-oriented, and he enjoys the game. I believe he'll do an excellent job because he gets along great with horsemen, and he understands what they are trying to do."

Walker’s elevation to head starter followed two other groundbreaking moves by Thistledown in promoting African Americans to significant official roles at the Cleveland area race track. In 1982, Charles Reed became a placing judge at the track after serving in the secretary’s office since 1964.

Reed’s appointment made him the first black racing official in racing history in the nation, which set the stage for more diversity in the sport. He served in the role of placing judge until 1989.

His breakthrough was followed by Darryl Parker in 1986 when he became the first black steward in the United States, a position he filled until 1999. Parker went on to work for the Ohio State Racing Commission as an inspector at River Downs, now known as Belterra Park near Cincinnati.

At the time of Walker’s appointment, he responded with, "I think it is great for Rick and for racing - he has earned the chance," Parker said. "Thistledown management has proven that there still are opportunities, and hopefully, other tracks will follow suit."

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