When I first saw the oil study of Proctor Knott winning the First Futurity stakes held at Sheepshead Bay on Long Island in 1888, I didn’t immediately realize that the painting’s title referred to the name of the horse, not the jockey. Shelby “Pike” Barnes was up, one of several leading African-Americans in the sport at the end of the 19th century and the first to win over 200 races in one season (Read more about Pike Barnes’ record-breaking career on the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame website). Following closely in second place was Salvator ridden by Tony Hamilton, another leading black jockey. The purse collected by the winning race horse’s owner was a whopping $40,900 (over $1,000,000 today), the highest race earnings at the time.
The hunched figures in the oil study by Louis Maurer in the National Sporting Library & Museum’s permanent collection may be construed by viewers as caricatures, especially in light of the fact that the artist drew conservative political cartoons that are blatantly racist and denigrating by today’s standards. Currier and Ives published them leading up to Republican Abraham Lincoln’s presidential election in 1860. One of the most extreme examples is titled An Heir to the Throne, Or the Next Republican Candidate.
Although this is difficult imagery to associate with Currier & Ives and Louis Maurer, the successful lithography firm’s company policy was business before politics. They produced satire expressing sentiments held across the political spectrum. For example, Maurer drew a pro-Lincoln cartoon, The Political Oyster House, also published by the firm in the same year.
Currier & Ives was much more widely known for creating a market for its broad variety of affordable art prints than for its caricatures. Among the last images Maurer contributed to the firm was the completed painting of the 1888 First Futurity race upon which the NSLM’s oil study was based. It was reproduced as a large chromolithograph titled The Futurity Race at Sheepshead Bay to appeal to middle-class collectors who could afford the image that commemorated an important moment in racing history.
The large original oil on canvas is in the collection of the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York. The painting and print reveal a stylistic consistency between the depiction of the African-American and Caucasian jockeys portrayed in the composition with the crowd in the distance focused on the action of the race.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Sheepshead Bay was in the racing capitol of the United States. From 1879 and 1910, three venues were established in Brooklyn within miles of one another which were accessible by new rail lines. The Brighton Beach track opened in 1879; then the picturesque dirt and turf tracks at Sheepshead Bay were begun in 1880 and 1886 respectively (where the First Futurity took place). The Gravesend Track operated by the Brooklyn Jockey Club was started in 1886. These tracks attracted sportsmen and race-goers from across all walks of life to Coney Island.
At the height of their popularity, the races drew as many as 40,000 spectators to the region during the season of May through October. The booming flat racing industry was fueled by sportsmen and supported by jockeys, trainers, grooms, and stable hands who traveled there seasonally. A community of hospitality workers also arose.
Many of these working-class men and women were African-Americans facing the rising tide of racism that would soon culminate in the spread of segregation laws across the United States by the early twentieth century. While race relations were complex, Louis Maurer’s painting, oil study, and print of the 1888 First Futurity as well as works by other artists of the era capture a slice of history to be embraced and honored for what they represent, a time when African Americans dominated the sport of racing as acclaimed top athletes and were depicted in this historically significant role.
To read more about this topic, please see They Rode to Win, Clarice & Robert H. Smith Educator Anne Marie Barnes’s blog and the upcoming public program on June 13, 2017, Race Forms: African-American Jockeys in Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion and Gilded Age Philadelphia by Dr. John Ott, a part of the Heroes & Underdogs lecture series.
Claudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at firstname.lastname@example.org