History of Latin Americans in the U.S. Racing Industry

From immigration to the jockeys who started it all

There is a tendency to group the Latin American[1] immigrants coming to the United States into one lumped sum. However, by breaking them apart, you can better analyze the demographics per each country. I will outline a few of the statistics from South America alone. According to the Department of Homeland Security, in 2015, 72,309 people from South America sought permanent residence in the United States: 1,596 from Chile, 3,730 from Argentina, 158,619 from Mexico, 9,144 from Venezuela, 10,148 from Peru, among many other countries (Table 3). The Department of State 2016 Report of the U.S. Visa Office accounts 669 Employment Preference Immigrant Visas Issued (by Foreign State of Chargeability or Place of Birth) for people from South America for the fiscal Year 2016, along with 241 from Mexico, which is included under North America (Table III). These give a general idea of current immigration rates.

Diving further into the topic of work visas issued to immigrants from Latin American countries, the recent immigration raids ordered by the Donald Trump administration could potentially have an effect on U.S. racetracks, due to the high percentage of undocumented workers from Latin America (Ross, 2017). Three possible visa options for backstretch workers, as outlined by Ross 2017, are the H-2B visa – which was the most commonly referenced throughout the article and is capped at 66,000 a year – The P1A, which is available minimally to workers and is geared more toward professional athletes such as jockeys, and the EB-3 visa, a petition for permanent residency.

It is important to keep in mind that it is difficult to distinguish between all the different legal documents held and required by the various groups mentioned in this paper. For example, there are people referred to in this study who will be included under the category of permanent residents. Others may be documented with a work visa, while still more might have dual residency. The statistics I have used are general, and are meant to highlight the immigration and involvement from Latin American countries to the United States. A vague example is the jockeys, trainers, or investors who have migrated to the United States from Latin America, and have likely attained residency or citizenship. Many backside workers arrive in the U.S. on temporary work visas, and there is also the likelihood of undocumented immigrants.

Exploring the historical context of Latin American immigration, the rise of Hispanic jockeys to prominence serves as a specific example. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Hall of Fame member and two-time Triple Crown winning trainer (Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935) is quoted in the February 5, 1962 issue of Sports Illustrated; an article titled “The Latin Invasion” by William Leggett, about the increasing dominance of Latin jockeys in the United States: “The Latins are going to take it all over in five or ten years. They’re natural horsemen. They’re bright and they’re strong. Mark my words, there’ll be more Latin riders around here than Americans before too long.”

He was not wrong. Two of the three 2016 Eclipse Award nominees for champion jockey were Hispanic: Venezuelan Javier Castellano, and Puerto Rican Jose Ortiz. Castellano was honored with the title for the fourth consecutive occasion. Prior to Castellano’s four-year streak, the winner was fellow Venezuelan, champion jockey and 2016 Hall of Fame inductee, Ramón Dominguéz, from 2010-2012 (“History”). Leggett credits the ascent of Latin American jockeys to the emergence of Mexican brothers Angel and Ismael (Milo) Valenzuela onto the U.S. racing scene in 1946 and 1952, respectively. While both were successful, Milo won several prestigious races, including the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes with Tim Tarn in 1958.

[1] For the purposes of this paper, “Latin America” denotes Spanish-speaking countries in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America.

Return for the following installment to learn about horse racing in Latin American countries.


History. (n.d.). Retrieved May 10, 2017, from https://www.ntra.com/eclipse-awards/history/

Leggett, W. (1962, February 5). The Latin Invasion. Retrieved March 03, 2017, from                                 http://www.si.com/vault/1962/02/05/591264/the-latin-invasion

Ross, D. (2017, February 23). ‘Who will do the work?’ Trump’s migrant crackdown risks horse racing’s future. Retrieved March 03, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/feb/23/trump-immigration-crackdown-horse-racing

Table 3. Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status By Region And Country Of Birth: Fiscal Years 2013 To 2015. (2015). Retrieved March 03, 2017, from                                                 https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2015/table3

Table III Immigrant Visas Issued (by Foreign State of Chargeability or Place of Birth) Fiscal Year 2016 [Advertisement]. (n.d.). Retrieved March 3, 2017, from https://travel.state.gov/content/dam/visas/Statistics/AnnualReports/FY2016AnnualReport/FY16AnnualReport-TableIII.pdf

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