Race and Supremacy

The Great White Horse

May 02, 2012

Multiple Pages
The Great White Horse

I’m not known as a reliable source of racetrack tips, so if you are headed to Churchill Downs for this Saturday’s 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, please don’t take this column as advice to wager heavily on Hansen at 14 to 1 odds. In early spring, Hansen was the Derby favorite, but a horse named Dullahan dimmed his luster by catching him with a tremendous closing charge in the Bluegrass Stakes on April 14.

Yet if you’re not a betting man, if you’re the kind of race fan whose spectatorship is limited to the Derby’s two minutes per year, then Hansen, the champion two-year-old last year, is fun to root for. That’s because he’s a horse of a different color, a virtually white thoroughbred. This makes him visually distinguishable from all the bays and chestnuts, even on the backstretch.

There’s something aesthetically striking about a white horse. Both Pegasus and the unicorn were envisioned as white. History’s most audacious propaganda painting features Napoleon crossing the Alps on a white stallion. (In reality, Bonaparte, no fool, crossed Great St. Bernard Pass in 1800 on a sure-footed mule led by a trusty guide.)

“White folks, unlike everybody else, aren’t supposed to be interested in race.”

Still, the interesting thing about thoroughbreds’ color is that it’s really not that interesting. Sure, some folks bet on their favorite color of horse, but that’s looked down upon by serious plungers. 

Among American humans, however, color is widely thought to be the basis of race. And everybody is interested in race. For instance, more people may have expressed an opinion on the whiteness of the four main characters in HBO’s new sitcom Girls than have watched the show. 

On the other hand, white folks, unlike everybody else, aren’t supposed to be interested in race. Hence, the popular clichés attempting to prove its impossibility (“How can anyone belong to more than one race?”) or unimportance. (“Race is only skin deep.”)

Yet as I’ve long suggested, the opposite is more true: Race is less about color than it is about your relatives, whether close or distant. Most humans find this topic intriguing. Due to how the US was settled by intercontinental voyages, skin color was a handy clue to your relations’ continental origins. Still, to think of color as the foundation of race is to put the conceptual cart before the horse.

Is color not terribly important in racing because science has proven that prejudices based on pedigree have no place at the racetrack?

Of course not. Instead, bettors and breeders don’t have to guess about a thoroughbred’s ancestry based on his color because they can look up exactly who all his forerunners have been for centuries. In England, the General Stud Book was first published in 1791, while its American equivalent dates to 1868. The thoroughbred gene pool has been thoroughly closed on both sides of the Atlantic since the 19th century.

For instance, Hansen’s pedigree is documented back more than 20 generations to legendary forefathers such as the Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk, whom Captain Byerley rode at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Hansen’s bloodline includes Native Dancer, the “Grey Ghost,” who became racing’s first television-era icon because he stood out on 1950s black-and-white TVs. His ancestry includes the famous 18th-century gray Alcock’s Arabian.

But Hansen’s darker progenitors are even better-known to casual fans. One of his great-great-grandfathers is Seattle Slew, the next-to-last horse to win racing’s Triple Crown. Secretariat, the supreme champion of recent times, fills two of the sixteen slots for great-great-great-grandfathers on Hansen’s inbred family tree, as does the leading modern sire, Northern Dancer, who fathered 635 registered foals. (Secretariat broke Northern Dancer’s Kentucky Derby speed record in 1973.)

A 2012 study by Irish geneticists suggests that a “speed gene” (C type myostatin gene variant) originated with an 18th century English mare and has proliferated among Northern Dancer’s progeny.

This doesn’t mean that Hansen is genetically fated to win on Saturday. The current co-favorites at 9 to 2, Union Rags and Bodemeister, share many of the same famous names in their pedigrees. They’re all distant cousins of each other by multiple genealogical pathways.

Americans tend to be freaked out by any thought of inbreeding, but it’s inevitable in any family tree, even one not officially closed like that of thoroughbreds. Just go back 40 generations in your own family tree, and you’ll find over a trillion slots to fill. Presumably, more than a few of your own precursors did double duty.

And that suggests the most efficient definition of race: A racial group is a partly inbred extended family. The inbreeding gives races more coherence and persistence than typical extended families. 

Thoroughbreds comprise a breed, which is a particular kind of race: an extended family that is becoming wholly inbred due to artificial selection.

Every human, in contrast, belongs to multiple races of varying sizes. This won’t satisfy the absolutists who say that Race Can’t Exist because people can’t belong to more than one race. In truth, when it comes to who your relatives are, it’s all relative.


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