The true story of the Kentucky Derby

In the latter half of the 19th Century, African Americans were considered some of the best horsemen in the world, a fact that has long since been forgotten or erased.

When Greg Harbut sat in the owner’s box at the 2020 Kentucky Derby to root for Necker Island, the horse he co-owned, it was a bittersweet moment. Greg was claiming his rightful spot at Louisville’s world-renowned Churchill Downs racetrack – a spot was that denied to his grandfather, Tom Harbut, because he was Black.

Even though Tom had bred and co-owned Touch Bar, a horse that ran in the 1962 Kentucky Derby, he was not listed as an owner or even allowed in the stands to watch the race.

As the owner of the Harbut Bloodstock racehorse management company in the nearby town of Lexington, Greg is a force in Kentucky’s illustrious equine business. He specialises in acquiring thoroughbreds for those with big dreams of cheering on a lightning-fast horse as it thunders to victory at the Kentucky Derby, the US’ most prestigious horse race that takes place annually on the first Saturday in May.

Greg Harbut, who co-owns Necker Island, comes from a long line of African American thoroughbred owners (Credit: Greg Harbut)

Today, there are few African Americans involved in the US’ horseracing industry, but they once dominated the sport, working as jockeys, trainers, breeders and grooms. In fact, in the latter half of the 19th Century, when horse racing was one of the most popular sports in America, African Americans were considered some of the best horsemen in the world, a fact that has long since been forgotten or erased.

“The Kentucky Derby started with the direct contributions of African American horsemen,” Greg said.

At the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, a tour (which also covers the adjacent Churchill Downs racetrack) reveals the proud legacy of Kentucky’s Black equestrians. Visitors learn that Oliver Lewis, the winning jockey of the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875, was Black, and his horse’s trainer, Ansel Williamson, was a Black man born into slavery. Lewis was far from alone: 12 of the 15 jockeys at the first Kentucky Derby were Black, and in the race’s first 28 runnings, African American jockeys won 15 times.

The exhibit also highlights the remarkable story of Isaac Burns Murphy. Son of a former enslaved person, Murphy became a three-time Kentucky Derby winner between 1884 and 1891 and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Yet, with the rise of Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the post-Reconstruction South, Black jockeys were forced off horses and into barns as caretakers and manual labourers.

The rise of Jim Crow laws forced Black jockeys to become trainers and caretakers (Credit: Vintage Images/Alamy)

The rise of Jim Crow laws forced Black jockeys to become trainers and caretakers (Credit: Vintage Images/Alamy)

To Greg’s tremendous pride, the museum’s recently expanded Black Heritage in Racing exhibit includes three generations of Harbut horsemen: Greg; Tom, who also cared for Dark Star, which won the Derby in 1953; and his great-grandfather, Will, groom to Man o’ War, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest racehorses in history. Will and the famous steed were featured on the cover of the 1941 Saturday Evening Post – a very rare accolade for an African American at the time.

Yet, Greg says his great-grandfather’s lesser-known accomplishments also deserve to be lauded. Long before his association with Man o’ War, Will was a savvy businessman who bred draft horses that he rented to the community, paving a financial path for his children to pursue higher education in an era when few African Americans did.

Did you know…

…that in addition to once dominating horseracing, Black horsemen helped popularise rodeos and Black cowboys settled the US?

“Out of 11 surviving children, seven obtained a collegiate four-year education, and six of those went through a Master’s programme,” Greg said. “That’s what horses, and Black wealth because of horses, created.”

Greg wanted to foster educational opportunities and workforce development for others, so in 2021, he and another of Necker Island’s co-owners, Raymond Daniels, founded the Ed Brown Society, named after a 19th-Century Black jockey. The organisation provides internships and scholarships for underrepresented young people of colour to give them a shot at a career in Kentucky’s multi-billion-dollar equine industry.

Lexington is known as "The Horse Capital of the World" (Credit: Alexey Stiop/Alamy)

Lexington is known as “The Horse Capital of the World” (Credit: Alexey Stiop/Alamy)

“I saw Mr Harbut and Mr Daniels running Necker Island in the Kentucky Derby, and it was inspirational to see someone who looked like me running a horse in the most prestigious race in the world,” said Charles Churchill, who received an internship in collaboration with the Ed Brown Society and now works as a project manager at a horseracing track.

Lexington is known as “The Horse Capital of the World”, but the fences that enclose the city’s many horse farms may seem like an impenetrable stronghold for low-income kids wanting to break into the elite equestrian world.

Nobody knows that better than Ron Mack, a Black horseracing enthusiast who founded the Legacy Equine Academy in 2016, an educational programme for middle- and high-school students in the Lexington area.

“I grew up in Lexington in a lower socio-economic neighbourhood. It was the projects back then,” Mack said. “The street I lived and played on was a huge circle.”

The Legacy Equine Academy provides African American students access to the equestrian world (Credit: Legacy Equine Academy)

The Legacy Equine Academy provides African American students access to the equestrian world (Credit: Legacy Equine Academy)

He didn’t know it at the time, but that circle was the defunct Kentucky Association Race Track, Lexington’s premier racing venue from 1828 to 1933. Renowned Black equestrians made history on that track, and many lived in the surrounding neighbourhood. “When we went out back to play football or baseball, we didn’t know we were playing on hallowed ground,” Mack said.

To ensure the academy’s predominantly Black participants are connected to their heritage, they tour Lexington’s International Museum of the Horse, home to the Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf exhibit that highlights the nearly forgotten achievements of Black horseracing trailblazers. Among them is Williamson and Lexington jockey Jimmy Winkfield, the last African American jockey to win the Kentucky Derby (1901 and 1902).

But the programme goes well beyond field trips. Through partnerships with local private horse farms, aspiring equestrians get hands-on experience that teaches them how to safely interact with a temperamental 1,200lb thoroughbred that’s stronger than a Kentucky Derby mint julep.

Maya Robinson was among the first to complete the programme and remembers a pivotal moment that helped decide her career path. “We went to the Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital and watched surgery on a horse,” she said. “My eyes were glued the entire time, and it made me realise that caring for animals and helping them get back to the healthiest state they can be is what I want to do as a career.”

Visitors can watch thoroughbreds train for free at Keeneland each morning (Credit: Keeneland)

Visitors can watch thoroughbreds train for free at Keeneland each morning (Credit: Keeneland)

Thanks in part to a scholarship from the Legacy Equine Academy, the 19-year-old is studying pre-veterinary medicine at Western Kentucky University. Another graduate of the Legacy Equine Academy, Haivan Stroman, is on a similar career path at Murray State University in western Kentucky.

Growing up, Stroman’s church was next to a horse farm, and she remembers reaching through the fence to pet the animals’ velvety muzzles and feel their warm breath on her hand.

She was awarded a scholarship from the Legacy Equine Academy to pursue her veterinary training and received it at Keeneland, the famous horse racing track and National Historic Landmark – a place she had only seen on TV despite living in Lexington. “It was financially out of reach,” she said. “My family couldn’t go to an extravagant (horseracing) event like that.”

The image of Champagne flutes, extravagant hats and handbags that cost more than some people’s rents can lead to the perception that Keeneland is inaccessible, but the public can watch the thoroughbreds train from 06:00 to 10:00 every morning for free. Afterward, travellers can visit The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers, a new temporary exhibit at Keeneland Library, which is also free and open to the public. It features many unsung heroes, including Sylvia Bishop (1920-2004), a trainer who overcame the dual barriers of race and gender to reach her professional goals.

Visitors to the International Museum of the Horse can learn about the Derby's proud Black history (Credit: Tracey Teo)

Visitors to the International Museum of the Horse can learn about the Derby’s proud Black history (Credit: Tracey Teo)

“When Sylvia Bishop became the first African American woman licensed to train (horses in the US), she did so at a time when many African American horsemen were unable to secure their licenses due to systemic discrimination,” said curator Roda Ferraro. “Bishop’s tenacity and resolve to do what she loved despite significant obstacles is one of many stories we are thrilled to share.”

Elsewhere, the African American Heritage Trail, a self-guided walking tour through downtown Lexington, is being expanded to include more about the city’s Black horsemen. When the new portion launches in June, visitors will be able to follow in the footsteps of the many jockeys that lived and worked near where the Kentucky Association Race Track once stood.

With more young people of colour gaining inspiration from equestrians like Bishop, and Kentucky finally embracing the Derby’s Black origins, the future of horseracing may one day look more like its past.

Rediscovering America is a BBC Travel series that tells the inspiring stories of forgotten, overlooked or misunderstood aspects of the US, flipping the script on familiar history, cultures and communities.


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