Martin’s city has long been known for its role as the host of the Derby, which returns this year to its iconic spot on the first Saturday in May. There were already reminders of the event downtown — tourists trickling into hotels and restaurants advertising Derby specials — signs that indicated Louisville was ready to get dressed up again.
But it has been a turbulent year in this community, which was part of a national movement for racial justice last year in the wake of the police shooting death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman. And this year’s Derby arrives as the city remains focused on reform, with protesters still calling for change in the city’s leadership and police force.
The Kentucky Derby has long left some conflicted, facing questions about the role of Churchill Downs in the community. As the 2021 race nears after a year of turmoil in Louisville, those questions remain.
Just seven months ago, hundreds of protesters descended on the track, demanding that the race be canceled in the wake of Taylor’s death. Officials said they listened, recently announcing an equity initiative aimed at making the race and related events more welcoming. Many local activists, however, labeled the announcement as another reminder of the disconnect that persists between the city’s most visible organization and many of its Black residents.
That includes Martin, a resident and grocery store owner on the city’s West End who worked at Churchill Downs more than a decade ago. She has not returned for a race since.
“Most people on this side [of town], including myself — and I’m middle income — cannot afford the Derby activities,” Martin said. “I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised they’re continuing any of it. They’re not moved by our calls to cancel the Derby at all.”
The 2020 Derby, which was moved to September because of the coronavirus pandemic, brought a notable change with a shift in tone for “My Old Kentucky Home,” the state’s official song. The song, which is from the viewpoint of an enslaved person and has long been a singalong for Derby-goers as the horses take the track, was played by a bugler as an instrumental piece only and was preceded by a moment of silence.
This year, the song will be performed as “it has been performed for 100 years,” Churchill Downs CEO William C. Carstanjen said in an interview this week. It is unclear if it will be a singalong or remain instrumental.
“It will be continued to be performed,” Carstanjen said. “It’s not a social or political statement. As society evolves and changes and as people’s feelings about the song are changed or altered over time, we will have to understand that and respond to that and engage in discussions with the respect to that.”
Carstanjen said his organization listened to members of the Black community and has reached out to local leaders. This week, officials announced the Derby Equity and Community Initiative, a five-year effort that is led by the Kentucky Derby Festival and is backed in part with funding from Churchill Downs.
Work on the initiative started before 2020 but accelerated amid the protests. It looks to add or relocate Kentucky Derby Festival events to areas of the city that have not traditionally held them, establish new traditions to pump money into underserved areas and expand contracts for businesses owned by underrepresented groups.
“To the extent that people feel we haven’t gone far enough yet — I agree with them. There’s much further to go. There’s much more to learn,” Carstanjen said. “Our commitment to our community and our commitment with this initiative is we’re going to keep taking those steps forward and we’re going to make things happen.”
Timothy Findley Jr., a local pastor who was arrested during a demonstration in June and helped lead the protests at Churchill Downs in September, called the initiative “an impotent bland move in the name of equity that really accomplishes nothing.” For Findley, who grew up in Louisville, the first Saturday in May was not about celebrating the Derby. Like so many other Black Louisvillians, Findley, his family and his friends had their own traditions, centered on backyard barbecues and cruising West Broadway, a practice that was banned by the city over concerns of gridlock and violence in 2006.
“That was a watershed moment. . . . That really was our Derby,” Findley said. “When we saw that taken away, it just furthered the divide as it relates to the actual week or weekend and those that lived in this community.”
In the months after the demonstration at the Derby in September, which he said led to death threats, he announced his candidacy for mayor.
“As we’ve said to many of the leaders across the different communities within our city, it’s great we’re building ties,” Carstanjen said. “But evaluate this initiative and evaluate us and our participation and contribution to our city on what you see next. What you see next month, what you see next year, what you see in five years.”
That the initiative is framed around a five-year plan is problematic, said Jecorey Arthur, a city councilman who has benefited economically from the Derby in recent years. As a longtime musician who performed at various Derby events, he also created the theme music for the Kentucky Derby Festival. He is not accepting opportunities to contribute to the festivities this year, he said, because he believes Churchill Downs has turned a blind eye to inequities in the community.
“The Derby means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and to a certain extent they feel they are a part of the festivities and they are part of the economic impact and they might not speak out. … I say this as someone who is technically an insider: It doesn’t matter how far along I come or how much progression is perceived by my involvement,” he said. “If my community cannot be involved in the same capacity, if we at large cannot be a part of the Kentucky Derby, then what’s the point of me being a part of the Kentucky Derby?”
Arthur said not enough has been done to atone for the exclusion of Black jockeys in the sport; Oliver Lewis won the first Derby in 1875, and 15 of the race’s first 28 winners were Black. Between 1921 and 2000, no Black jockeys competed in the race. On Saturday, Kendrick Carmouche will become the first Black jockey to race since 2013.
This Derby week began with Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) recognizing the history of Black jockeys and the discrimination they have long faced in the sport; Beshear signed a proclamation that honored the Ed Brown Society, which is named after a former enslaved person who later became a jockey and Kentucky Derby-winning trainer.
One of the founders of the society, Greg Harbut, was the only Black owner of a horse, Necker Island, during the 2020 Kentucky Derby. Some called for him to boycott the race, even though it was a breakthrough for a man who came from a legacy of elite horsemen. Harbut is the great-grandson of Will Harbut, who groomed legendary racehorse Man o’ War, and the grandson of Tom Harbut, who bred and owned 1962 Derby participant Touch Bar but was not allowed to attend the event.
“We were very clear from the beginning that we stood for justice for Breonna Taylor, and we still do stand for justice for Breonna Taylor. … That was never in question,” Harbut said. “For us, we want to make this industry more inclusive. It’s a great sport. It’s a sport that a lot of African Americans do not know that we have a well-documented history within the industry.”
Along with his partner, Ray Daniels, Harbut has his own initiatives to attract more Black participants to the industry. He believes that horse racing is working to address its long-standing issues on inclusiveness and appeal to a market it has not targeted in the past. That includes efforts at Churchill Downs, where he sees the initiative as a step in the right direction.
On Tuesday, after activists protested on the Metro Hall steps a few miles away, Harbut attended a ceremony at Churchill Downs that celebrated Black horsemen in thoroughbred racing past and present.
“I was very proud to see that. It was a very special day. It was very well received by the fan base that were on-site,” he said, “and I think it’s some great first steps toward progress.”