By Sarah Maslin Nir
The Jockey & Her Horse is the second entry in Sarah Maslin Nir’s “Once Upon A Horse” children’s book series. It highlights the story of Cheryl White, the first Black woman jockey, and is a collaboration between Nir and White’s younger brother, Raymond White, Jr.
I could’ve finished this book a little faster than I ultimately did, but I didn’t want it to end — the story itself was that good! Readers meet Cheryl, a teenage girl living in Rome, Ohio on her family’s Thoroughbred farm in 1970. Cheryl wants to be a jockey but her father doesn’t, at first, think women can be jockeys – that begins to change when she falls out of a hayloft one morning rescuing a bird and lands on the back of Jetolara, a promising Thoroughbred in training. Jeto, as he’s affectionately called, startles and takes off with Cheryl still on his back, she stays on, settles him down and guides him back to safety, realizing she didn’t just want to be a jockey, she’d observed enough and knew what to do and already was one. She learns about Kathy Kusner, who’d recently (the book begins in 1968) become the first woman to receive a jockey’s license in the U.S.
Through her journey to becoming a jockey in 1971 at age 17, riding in and losing her first race on her mother’s horse, Ace Reward, before winning aboard Jetolara after competing on the quiz show It’s Academic, White overcomes self-doubt and learns to embrace her achievements even when she does lose. She also, with the help of her younger brother, Drew, overcomes some sexism from her father, who initially doesn’t appear to believe women can be jockeys. Spoiler alert: Toward the end of the book it’s revealed he did believe in his daughter all along and just didn’t communicate it well.
The real Cheryl White went on to win 750 races during her career before becoming a steward at Thistledown race course. White passed away in 2019. An author’s note by Raymond White, Jr. notes that parts of the book are fictional – It’s Academic was not held in Senegal, for example — that was something created to discuss the history of enslaved Black equestrians.
As much as I loved reading this, I would love to see a book about White for adult readers, too! Also, I believe there’s a documentary in the works but if this ever gets the non-documentary movie treatment, the scene where the reporters start showing up at the farm to interview White, culminating in three reporters trying to walk through a door at the same time, better be in there because it had me laughing! Funny scene aside, this book is compelling and absolutely shares a part of equestrian sports history and the stories of Black equestrians, which has been overlooked and needs to be told. It deserves a spot on any horse lovers’ bookshelf for that reason, alone.
Nir’s “Once Upon A Horse” series will continue with a third book, The Star Horse, due in Fall 2024.