What can be done to tackle racism and dwindling African-American participation in harness racing?

In an industry dominated by white people, providing more opportunities for people of color is key to improving much-needed diversity.

by Debbie Little

This is the second in a series in recognition of Black History Month.

Today we’re looking at racism and dwindling African-American participation in harness racing and whether anything can be done to change either.

“It’s a tough subject to talk about, just because you have to be that guy in the business to understand where that guy’s coming from,” said trainer Newton (Yogi) Sheridan.

Sheridan, 42, is one of a minuscule number of African-American trainers that participate on a regular basis at The Meadowlands.

“My perspective is, you’re in a circle and it’s dominated by one color and that’s the way it is,” said Sheridan. “You’ll see a guy that has talent and wins races and he’s doing good but he’s doing good with the minimum. He’s not given the resources to go to the sale with $200,000.

“And then you have George Teague that worked hard for everything he’s had. He was in a position and he came out swinging, he got lucky and that’s that. Some of us weren’t that lucky.”

Hall of Famer Lew Williams was the most successful African-American in harness racing in the 1970s until his untimely death in 1989. Today, that mantle is carried by Teague.

African-American trainer Yogi Sheridan had to save up $1,000 to pay people $100 apiece to let him qualify their horses so he could earn his driving license.

Yet, with all the success that Teague has had in his career – including two Horse of the Year award winners and having the co-fastest horse of all time – much like Williams and Sheridan, he has experienced racism in our sport, even overhearing people in his home state of Delaware refer to him using the “N” word in the past few years.

“Until Lew Williams, there was nobody mentioned of color,” said Teague, 57. “Me, I was lucky, I think because my talent made me lucky. I took the opportunities that were given, which were very little. I’m the kind of guy that took two years to get a driver’s license because nobody would give me a drive when I was younger. I started out with $1,000 claimers. I didn’t start out with any stock at all. There wasn’t anybody knocking on my door saying let me give you a hand up. Where do you get an in when you’re black when there’s no participation?

“When systemic racism has been around for the last 400 years and we’ve only had Jim Crow laws leave about 50 years ago, how do you modify people to say, ‘Look, this is really a problem that only money can fix’? And money can fix it. Opportunity comes with money. Greatness comes with opportunity. You can’t see a person’s greatness without opportunity. If LeBron James had made one wrong turn and stayed out of basketball, you’d have never seen the greatest player of this generation.”

Getting his driver’s license also didn’t come easy for Sheridan, who came up with a creative and, in many ways, head-scratching solution.

“I saved my money and I got $1,000 and I walked through Freehold Raceway and I said I’ve got $100 for every qualifier,” said Sheridan. “So, I was giving people $100 to let me qualify [their horse]. Do you know how deterring that was?”

With all the talent and ability that Teague’s son, Montrell, has shown as a driver by winning many top stakes races, George said he knows that things could have turned out very differently.

“I was lucky and fortunate enough to have a stable of horses through [Montrell’s] career to give him a chance to drive some great horses and some good horses, but I don’t see it happening for him if I wasn’t in the works to give him an opportunity,” said George. “Yogi had to go out and pay somebody else to get drives? Who has ever done that?”

Harness racing is certainly not the only sport that is predominantly white, but when it comes to attracting more African-American participation in our sport, who would they look up to or want to emulate?

“We had one real good black driver, Lew Williams, and he passed away,” said Sheridan. “And now you’ve got Montrell Teague, and everybody’s like, he’s our hero. That’s like Obama getting voted in as president. When you’re caught in that depression stage for so long, all you want to see is something of you. You’re going to see a black face in the White House? I don’t know what he stands for but as long as he’s standing, that’s all that I care about, because we’ve been deprived for so long.”

Vincent “Chubby” Stallworth, 56, and Enrico “Rico” Robinson, 54, can be seen in the paddock nightly at The Meadowlands and neither believe they have experienced the same racism George and Sheridan have in harness racing, certainly not since moving to New Jersey.

“I have good relationships with driver and trainers, but I only know what they say to my face. I don’t know what they say behind my back and that’s on them,” said Stallworth.

Stallworth is from Mobile, AL which is only two-and-a-half hours from Birmingham, which was one of the most racially divided cities in the U.S. in the early 1960s. His family moved to New Jersey when he was 5 years old.

“My mother and father went through a lot of that and I’ve learned a lot from them,” he said. “I thank God for my mother and father because they always taught us to treat people the way you want them to treat you. You’ve got to be kind to people and it’s not about the skin color, it’s about how that person treats you. You always treat people with respect. That’s what they instilled in us.

“I never had one boss that I worked for that made me think about them being racist towards me. They always treated me the same way they treated everyone else in the barn.”

Stallworth started grooming in 1979 and worked over the years for different trainers, and most recently for Vinny Fusco, Jr. for the last seven years until Fusco’s untimely death in 2020 from COVID-19.

“I’ve been around the sport a long time and there have never been a lot of African-American drivers around here, more were around as caretakers and took care of great horses,” said Stallworth. “A lot of them never really wanted to drive or train, they just really wanted to be caretakers and I learned a lot from those guys.

“I never wanted to be a trainer. I just enjoy taking care of horses. But, once my man Vinny Fusco died, I said, ‘You know what, I’m just going to do my own thing. I don’t want to work for nobody, I want to honor him.’ I don’t know why African-Americans don’t get into it now because it’s a great sport and I don’t want to do anything else.”

Stallworth got his training license last year and currently has a 10-horse stable that primarily races at The Meadowlands.

“I thank God that I have the opportunity to race horses at The Meadowlands,” he said. “That these owners of mine have given me the opportunity and privilege to train their horses and have the opportunity to race at The Meadowlands and trust me to race their horses at The Meadowlands.”

Robinson, like Stallworth, relocated to New Jersey from the South and is probably best known as the caretaker for Horse of the Year Muscle Hill. He is currently second trainer for Jeff Cullipher and manages over 30 horses.

“Growing up, I’m originally from Mississippi, it was just a whole different ball game,” said Robinson. “I can honestly say since I’ve been in New Jersey, I haven’t seen [racism]. This is by far the best job I’ve had with Jeff [Cullipher] and Tom Pollack, the owner. They’ve treated me super, and color, I know, hasn’t mattered to them.

“I can’t say how humble I am for getting the job and I can’t say enough about, I don’t know whether it was luck, I don’t know what it was, it was a big opportunity them giving me something like this. My grandfather got me into it and once I got in it this is where I wanted to be. For me, I never saw it as work because I enjoy it. Of course, I work, but I enjoy what I do.”

Sheridan agrees with Stallworth and Robinson that he’s been treated well at The Meadowlands and despite some of the racism he’s had to endure elsewhere, he is quick to point out that there were at least two trainers that never treated him differently, Lou Pena and Carl Conte.

“My brother’s son passed away [about 10 years ago],” said Sheridan. “We put a can at Freehold in the race office just for some help. We didn’t get $20 in it and they’ve known us for years. We’ve worked for everyone and never had a problem with anyone. Lou Pena gave my brother $10,000 and said, ‘I’m sorry for your loss, bury your son, and whatever’s left you keep it.’ And he said, ‘If you need anything you let me know, because I can’t [imagine] what it would feel like to lose my child.’

“[Pena] treated us like people, he treated us good and this was before he had 90 horses. Everyone was treated the same and he was always helping regardless of what color you were. He gave me a ton of drives. Carl Conte was the same way. He was great. You can ask George Teague about Carl Conte and he’ll say the same thing.”

To add some perspective, at the same time as his nephew’s death, Sheridan remembers a Freehold driver breaking his leg in an accident.

“They put up a donation can for him and the guy gets more than $10,000,” said Sheridan.

All the horsemen that I spoke with would like to see more African-American participation in the sport, but how to do it is the big question.

“I wouldn’t want to start out working on horses knowing that I was going to be a groom for the rest of my life,” said George. “I don’t like where it’s headed.”

The United States Trotting Association (USTA) does not ask for race on its license applications so it’s impossible to know what percentage of the sport is African-American. However, it can be noted that currently there are no African-Americans on the Board of the Hambletonian Society or as directors of the USTA.

Hambletonian Society president John Campbell was a contemporary of Lew Williams and was in favor of his induction into the Hall of Fame as an Immortal.

“I was a big admirer of Lew, not only his talent as a driver but as a trainer,” said Campbell. “I actually got to know first-hand just how good of a trainer he was the first year I was at The Meadowlands and I was unknown to say the least. Sometimes, during the summer when Lew would have stakes races out of town, he’d put me down to drive his Saturday night stock and they were just so impressive to drive. They were just geared to perfection, classified right and it was just a pleasure to drive them. I knew what a great driver he was racing against him, but his horsemanship was really I think maybe underrated unless you got to experience that first hand.

“The first couple of years at The Meadowlands he had likely the most powerful stable as far as top to bottom horses of anybody there. In 1978, ‘79 and ’80, he had a tremendous stable of horses from Whata Baron on down.”

In regards to how to make our sport more diverse, Campbell had some good suggestions.

“Maybe the place to start is with the Harness Horse Youth Foundation,” he said. “I think maybe another avenue would be to try and cultivate more African-American owners. It’s a tough business to get started in unless you have a family connection.”

Whereas other predominantly white sports, such as hockey, have tried to reach out to local minority communities with youth programs, harness racing has yet to do so.

“If you don’t have a grassroots program to try and get people involved and engaged in this business, of color or any ethnicity that is going to make this business look like it has some diversity to it, how do you convince them to come on board?” asked George. “How do you promote this to people, other than being a groom? I think a lot of our next generation went by the wayside because they didn’t want to be grooms. I know my cousins did and I know my family did. I can speak from experience that they disengaged from harness racing because there were no opportunities.

“With the thousands of people that participate in this sport and with the population of black people in this world, how is there such a divide between that and this business? I don’t want to be the only one eating. I want to show someone else a way of life too. I want to give everybody an opportunity. Am I going to be the last one that has a chance to have a Horse of the Year?”