LifestyleAfrican Americans' representation celebrated at Preakness 149

African Americans’ representation celebrated at Preakness 149

The rainy weather and muddy ground didn’t stop thousands of people from coming to Baltimore, Maryland’s Pimlico Race Course in their finest threads, chicest hats, and brightest smiles for the 149th Preakness Stakes on Saturday, May 18. A fashionable, athletic event, Preakness 149 was not only a celebration of horse-racing, but featured Black representation and excellence in a way that highlighted the value of African Americans’ contributions to equestrian sports and culture overall.

Horse owner Amanda St. Lewis, of Trin-Brook Stables, in front of the stables at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland. Her horse Deposition participated in the 149th Preakness Stakes on Saturday, May 18. (Micha Green/The Washington Informer)
As thousands of guests flocked to see the horse races, eat crab cakes, drink “Black-eyed Susans,” and showcase their flashy attire, hundreds of African Americans traversed the race track to a tent that featured jam-after-jam, an open bar, and people in showstopping clothes, showcasing the beauty of Black joy.  This special celebration of Blackness is called Afro Preak.

“So many people who have lived in Baltimore all their lives, never came to Preakness, because they didn’t feel it was for them. And so with the help of the Finn Group, which includes LaRian Finney and Derrick Chase, we worked on creating an experience for us, where we could hear our entertainment, have our fashion and style accommodated, and be appreciated at Preakness. Not at some outside party— at Preakness,” said Azikiwe Deveaux, owner of Events for the People and partner in Afro Preak, along with the Finn Group. 

Before walking into Pimlico Race Course, several African American residents in Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood were outside welcoming guests. There was music blasting (even a DJ) and helpful locals offering to park visitors’ cars, feed them, and let them use their restrooms, all for a fee of course.

However, Deveaux told The Informer that historically, not all Black Baltimoreans have felt welcomed inside of Pimlico Race Course for the Preakness Stakes.

“The irony of Preakness is that it’s in Park Heights. So you have this very affluent, typically non-Black experience, as far as the horse races, in the middle of Park Heights. What people don’t realize is that [Black people] are luxury aspiring, we are luxury appreciative, and so with something catering to that, we will participate,” Deveaux said. “What Afro Preak does, it says, ‘I know you’re appreciated. I know a lot of you have been here, came here as an in-fielder, maybe came to the governor’s tent as a local politician, but never really felt like it was for you. Now Afro Preak is for you.’”

The 149th Preakness Stakes was hosted at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on Saturday, May 18. (Micha Green/The Washington Informer)
The packed tent, featured DJs, a photo booth, comfy lounge sections, tables, bottle service, and plenty of room to cut-a-rug— or the grass, for that matter.

Aimee Ringgold, owner of Sassy Shots Mobile Bartending Services, and her staff, ensured that the beverages were flowing as part of Afro Preak.  However, for Ringgold, and her bartenders, who were donning short, bright matching dresses, being at Preakness was more than just about pouring up drinks– it was about representation.   

“It’s super important to have an African American presence here at the Pimlico Race Course, at the Preakness, and it’s also important to be a Black-owned business, woman-owned business, being able to participate in such a capacity,” Ringgold said.

With Black businesses and excellence in full effect, Afro Preak was a hidden gem as a part of Preakness, the second jewel in the Triple Crown.

“Afro Preak shows that if [Black people] are acknowledged and appreciated, we will participate. So now we have over 400 or 500 targeted African Americans who appreciate and have elevated experiences in Preakness– and who are not just partying in the infield, who are participating in the betting and learning of horse racing, and experiencing what the culture of horse racing is all about,” Deveaux told The Informer.

Black Ownership, Entrepreneurship in Horse Racing Culture

Jedda Queen (front right) speaks with clients in the Grandstand building at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore during Preakness 149. (Micha Green/The Washington Informer)
There’s a lot that goes into Preakness Stakes.  There’s the setup, staff, and money that goes into making sure the horse races and performances from artists like Jack Harlow go on without a hitch.  Then, there are the milliners, designers and more that make sure that people are prepared on Preakness day. And, last, but certainly not least, there are the owners and trainers that ensure the horses are healthy and ready for the races– the main reason for the day.

Marjae Hats Westminster, based in Crofton, Maryland, has been a “preferred Preakness vendor,” for the past 12 years.  While owner Margie Hicks was busy on official duty throughout Pimlico Race Course, her sister Jedda Queen shared the inspiration behind the milliner’s head-turning hats.

“The reason why this is so special to Margie is because our mother used to wear hats,” Queen shared. “Do you remember the 50s and the 60s, all the women wore hats and gloves and they looked beautiful? Margie likes to help women look beautiful… I am so blessed to work with Margie and see her gift with women come into fruition.”

Queen told The Informer her sister’s hat business is a Preakness fan favorite.

“They expect us here. And the only year we were not here was 2019 when our mother passed.  And everybody said, ‘Hey where’s the hat lady? We were looking for you,’” she said. “So I would just like to say when you are going to the Preakness, if you’re going to a wedding or going to a tea, or you’re going to a Divine Nine party or event, come to Marjae Hats Westminster.”

Even with the best hats and clothes, there’s no Preakness without the horses.

This year’s big winner was Seize the Grey. However there were other horses, like Deposition, and his owner and trainer Amanda and Uriah St. Lewis, with interesting tales as well.

A horse is groomed as part of Preakness 149 at s Pimlico Race Course, located in Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood. (Micha Green/The Washington Informer)
“The last race [Deposition] was in the Wood Memorial and he clipped heels, went flying and fell. We were really trying to get in the Kentucky Derby” said Deposition’s owner Amanda St. Lewis, of Trin-Brook Stables at Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. “So we came to this race instead, now that he’s all better and everything else.”

As African Americans in horse-racing, at times, events can feel a bit isolating for Amanda St. Lewis and her trainer husband.

“[It’s] strange because when we run in a lot of stake races, we’re the only ones there– as owners and trainers. But you make due and you pray that your horse wins, or at least does well,” she told The Informer. “We’ve been in it for 40 years and there’s not many Black people— that’s the thing about it, we watch the sport and all the trainers and all the owners are usually white.  And white owners don’t give as many Black trainers the opportunity.”

St. Lewis said in order for horse-racing to survive and thrive, there must be more diversity.

“Horse racing is not inclusive, especially on the top level. And if you’re not inclusive on the top level, then you’re not going to get the people of different races to watch. So it’s a dying sport, it’s getting smaller, and most of the people that are going to survive are the people with the money,” she explained. 

History of Africans Amercans in Equestrian Sports: Bringing Black People Back to Horse Racing

African Americans are not new to horse-racing. 

In 1875, 10 years after the official end of the Civil War, the first Kentucky Derby was run, with Oliver Lewis, an African American jockey, winning the first race. Then three-time Kentucky Derby winner Isaac Burns, another Black jockey, was victorious in 1884, 1890 and 1891, a record that would not be broken until 1948.

In the Grandstand clubhouse, guests check the scores during Preakness 149. (Micha Green/The Washington Informer)
Ten years after Burns, James Winkfield won the Kentucky Derby back-to-back in 1901 and 1902. However, Winkfield became the last Black jockey victorious in the Kentucky Derby, as the sport grew more racially exclusive, according to Brittanica.

Despite African American success in the sport, after World War I, Black jockeys were prohibited from riding and only limited to being stable hands. Nonetheless, the rise of the Black upper-class contributed to African Americans re-emerging in the sport— with entrepreneurs such as Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. owning and racing horses.

In 2000 Lafayette, Louisiana’s Marlon St. Julien became the first Black jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby since 1921, where he finished seventh.

St. Lewis said it’s time to see more African Americans in all aspects of the equestrian field.

Guests party at Afro Preak on the grounds of Pimlico Race Course as part of the 149th Preakness Stakes on May 18. (Micha Green/The Washington Informer)
“Black people can be in this space,” she emphasized. “My husband and I are too old to be [the diversity] anymore because we’re trying to get out and retire. But they need to find more African American trainers and owners on the top level.”

For Deveaux, diversity, equity and inclusion in horse-racing is not just about having African Americans involved in the sport, but emphasizing their importance to equestrian culture overall.

“Diversity and inclusion is not just about having a presence,” he said. “It’s about saying: ‘We need to be present. We’re qualified.”

Source: Washington Informer

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