Author: Nicholas Godfrey
IN THE ERA of ‘Black Lives Matter’, issues of racial discrimination are firmly on the agenda in every walk of life. Horse racing is by no means exempt, and TV broadcasters on both sides of the Atlantic have drawn attention to the subject of racial diversity in the sport. Or more precisely, the lack of racial diversity. In the States, TVG analyst Ken Rudulph has long been calling out instances of perceived racism in a sport where black jockeys, Isaac Murphy, Jimmy Winkfield, Willie Simms, were among the greatest of their era, playing a dominant role before they virtually vanished in the 20th century.
Aristides, the first Kentucky Derby winner in 1875, was ridden by Oliver Lewis. A black man. Rudulph can be a divisive figure, as we’ll see later on. Not so much Rishi Persad, though the Dubai World Cup Carnival regular also provoked a degree of hostility, and plenty of support, for a relatively gentle interview with fellow broadcaster Josh Apiafi on Sky Sports in which he talked about his own past, how he had faced racism, and called for greater diversity in British racing.
To be fair to Persad, his statements called for an end to discrimination of all kinds: gender, sexuality and class among them. But it was race and ethnicity which dominated the aftermath, and he endured his share of criticism. The words ‘onslaught’ and ‘barrage’ can probably be used here, though equally, plenty of people jumped to a staunch defence.
Though it is worrying in itself that any defence should have been deemed necessary after such a reasonable assessment. Anyway, that is where we stand, and it is fair to say that one needs only to visit a stable yard or racetrack in Britain (when we’re allowed) or a barn complex in North America to appreciate the absence of African Americans.
However, while there are historical reasons for this state of affairs, it would be wrong to suggest nothing is being done. Sure, it is a slow enough journey but in Britain the BHA’s Diversity in Racing initiative and attached steering group (of which Persad is a member) was created to approach these very issues.
What is more, even if horse racing is fighting to overcome a reputation as a bastion of white male privilege, then at least the sport does not feature overt racism, whether it’s the UK or USA. Or so I thought. Until two recent crass examples, one on either side of the Atlantic, shone a harsh light on the individuals concerned.
Both, presumably, were attempts as some kind of so called ‘humour’ and the naming of racehorses. Let’s start in England, where there was massive embarrassment for racing’s rulers, who have vowed to review the procedure for vetting racehorse names after a horse was allowed to race under a name with racist connotations.
‘Jungle Bunny’ was unplaced in a race at Wolverhampton on Saturday 12 December before the offensive name, a racist slur dating back to the 1970s, came to the attention of the BHA, which immediately ordered a name change when they realised their policing failure over the issue. Not before the name had caused outrage on social media, however, where the error was described as ‘unforgivable’ by ‘gobsmacked’ followers of the sport.
The story was also picked up in several national newspapers, among them The Guardian, The Sun and Daily Mail, plus the Reuters news agency. The BHA said ‘human error’ allowed the name to slip through their checking procedures, admitting on Twitter that it was ‘deeply offensive and should not have been permitted’.
The filly at the centre of the controversy is a 2yo trained in Wales by David Evans. She was well beaten into sixth at Wolverhampton, where race caller, fellow Al Adiyat columnist Derek Thompson did not mention her name. The Evans camp claimed it was ‘an innocent mistake’ and the name derived from the sire Bungleinthejungle and a computer game they said is called ‘Jungle Bunny Run’, which trainer’s wife Emma said her grandson likes to play.
“It was completely innocent and that is the gospel truth,” she said in one report. “None of the staff said anything, nobody else said anything and I’m totally flabbergasted. “I’m upset because we’ve had our Sunday ruined by everybody ringing about it. It makes you look like a racist, which I am certainly not.”
Well, sorry for ruining your Sunday morning but casual racism isn’t a pleasant look. At least the horse is now Jungle Bells, and the official formbook has been amended. It has been well beaten twice since. Then we get to last weekend in New York, where trainer Eric Guillot saddled a horse called Grape Soda to win a maiden claimer on his debut by six and three-quarter lengths on Friday’s card at Aqueduct.
No sooner had the horse gone under the wire than its name provoked a social media storm, with Ken Rudulph branding Guillot as ‘racist’. “The winner in race #1 from Aqueduct is the perfect example of my issue with horse racing,” tweeted an indignant Rudulph. “The winning trainer is a disgusting and racist man.
But, if you want to make money in this game you have to be able to ignore that stuff. I can’t do it.” Rudulph had a point. Far from being an innocent phrase, the term ‘grape soda’ carries pejorative connotations as it can be used as a racist slur directed at black people. It derives from a stereotype, referring to cheap fizzy drinks that are allegedly popular in inner city neighbourhoods.
It isn’t funny, and it clearly causes offence to those on the receiving end. Guillot, for his part, had previously come across as a somewhat batty but harmless individual, best known internationally for the voodoo dolls stationed outside his barn during Breeders’ Cup week. Plus Grade One winner Moreno.
The trainer claimed in a tweet that grape soda had been his favourite drink when he was a kid. “When I went home for Xmas my 88yo mother had a kick out of me naming a horse after my favourite drink when I was little boy,” he said. “She always reminded me of it for years!” Ah, ain’t that cute.
Except that before the horse ran as Grape Soda, Guillot had posted a photo saying: “This colt will run next week and has a unique name in honour of a TVG analyst.” In case anyone missed his point, he added a black fist emoji. Perhaps I am being a little harsh, but it must be suspected Guillot hasn’t been taking a knee in support of Black Lives Matter.
To label Guillot, or Evans, for that matter, as crassly insensitive is probably a euphemism. On the plus side, however, once the horrendously named ‘Grape Soda’ had been noticed, the New York Racing Association did not waste time in barring a seemingly unapologetic Guillot from its premises.
The suspension was reciprocated by the Stronach Group, whose venues include Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park. Guillot, for his part, said he was enjoying his retirement. Good riddance, you might be tempted to say, but I would rather finish up on a more positive note. I have no intention of listing them here, but these are by no means the first horse names to carry such connotations.
What has changed, though, is that society no longer finds them acceptable on even a tacit basis. And that, thankfully, includes horse racing. Grape Soda, the 3yo son of Uncle Mo at the centre of such a toxic episode, was claimed for $25,000 by trainer Rob Atras, and new owner Larry Roman immediately renamed the hapless gelding.
He is now called Respect For All.