Forgotten American Black Jockeys: Joseph Sheffey

Both of my grandfathers were talented horsemen. I like to think I inherited a talent for riding from them…a talent that has come in handy in England, my adopted country. Putting my love of surfing to one side, few things beat the adrenaline rush of galloping around the Cornish countryside and open moorlands.

My maternal Turner grandfather was apparently something of a horse whisper. Family legend says that’s how he got his nickname ‘Buck’. He had a talent for breaking in horses when growing up in rural Maryland.

Joseph Sheffey in his jockey silks, around 1900
Joseph Sheffey in his jockey silks, around 1900

My paternal grandfather, Joseph Sheffey, was a professional jockey. I know precious little about his racing career. Born in Wytheville, VA in 1881, it’s probably here that his racing talent started. The only other information my grandmother mentioned was that he had been a jockey in the big races in New York and New Jersey. She said he’d been a very talented jockey in his day. It never occurred to us to ask her about when he raced or anything about his career.  We just thought it was pretty cool that he’d been a jockey. The picture to the left is the only clue. Sadly, it’s not dated. My family can only hazard a guess based on what we think his age was when the picture was taken and the style of his clothes.  We’re guessing a window of time between 1898 and 1904.

History would suggest 1905 would be a late date – many black jockeys were forced out of American horseracing from 1900 onwards, an arena where a number of their ranks had achieved celebrity status over the previous century. From 1900, the most talented of the American black jockeys continued their careers in Europe.

Whether it was limited racing opportunities or his marriage in 1904, Joseph Sheffey hung up his racing silks shortly after his marriage.

My family would love to learn more about his (albeit short) career as a jockey: the races he entered, names of the horses he rode, wins and racing grounds. Any information would be gratefully received.

In the meantime, it’s my pleasure to add his name to the list of forgotten professional American Black jockeys.

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