Usually the Kentucky Derby kicks off in spring, but it took place in early September this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, which threw the race schedule into chaos.
The race was met with protests. Activists called out Greg Harbut, the only African American to race a horse at this year’s Kentucky Derby. They wanted him to boycott the race alongside them — in light of Breonna Taylor’s death this spring in Louisville.
Harbut is the first African American owner to enter a horse in the Kentucky Derby in 13 years. His family has worked with champion race horses for nearly a century.
KCRW speaks with Greg Harbut about his family’s legacy in horse racing. Also joining the conversation is Katherine Mooney, history professor at Florida State University and author of “Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack.”
KCRW: Greg, the horse that you raced at the derby is known as Necker Island. He came in ninth.
Greg Harbut: “We were very elated just to be able to participate in the Kentucky Derby. … For anyone who's involved in the sport, the first thing that someone asks you is ‘have you had any type of affiliation with the Kentucky Derby, whether you be a trainer, jockey, breeder or owner?’ So for us to be able to participate with all the great horsemen who have come before us and to be selected to be in this year's running, we felt like winners to begin with. We set a goal. We knew what we were going to be up against. The Kentucky Derby is … not a race that you can just say, ‘I want to run in.’ You have to earn your spot. So Necker Island earned his spot.
… We had set a goal that we wanted to finish in the top 10. We finished ninth. … What we had set out to do was to get him to the race, but not only to get him to the race, but they'd be able to say that we finished in the top. So for us, it was a win-win experience from beginning to end.”
Just came by and checked in on Necker after such an Impressive Workout——>#blacklivesmatter #blackwealth #BlackTwitter #blackenterprise #wealth #BlackHistory #AfricanAmericans #Derby #Louisville pic.twitter.com/EPxHKeg5MQ— Greg Harbut (@HarbutBldstock) August 28, 2020
But did you wrestle with the protesters’ call to not participate in the derby this year — to honor Breonna Taylor?
Greg Harbut: “Obviously, it's very trying times that the whole country is in, particularly Louisville, which is where the Kentucky Derby is held. My partner Raymond Daniels and I have said from the beginning that we stand for justice for Breonna Taylor, and we stand for justice for the African Americans. And we truly believe in the Black Lives Matter movement.
In saying that, we felt like we could not bypass a seat at the table in which we had earned to participate in this year's Kentucky Derby. It's no secret that we're in an industry that can do a lot better with diversity, inclusiveness. … We felt like we had a huge platform to bring awareness of the contributions that African Americans have made to the industry.
And in fact, my grandfather owned a horse in a 1962 Kentucky Derby that because of the social unrest and racial injustice at that time, as an owner, he was not even allowed to attend the races, nor was he allowed to be listed. So we actually looked at this opportunity as progress over protest. So we felt in our own way, that by us participating, we were shedding awareness on the contributions of African Americans. And we were bringing light, that there should be more inclusiveness within our own industry.”
Your grandfather owned a horse that raced in that Derby, and yet he couldn't attend the race?
Greg Harbut: “Yeah, it was back in the 1962 Kentucky Derby. He bred and owned a horse by the name of Touch Bar. In that time and era, African Americans were excluded from a lot of things. And unfortunately, his name being listed, and him being able to attend as an actual owner, as opposed to just being a stable room or hand, was not tolerated or allowed at that time. It's unfortunate, but that is a part of our history in racing and our nation's history.
So for me to be the grandson of a man who could not participate, and all these years later, I was able to participate, I actually felt vindication not only for my grandfather, but for the other African Americans who were experiencing the justices as well.”
Katherine Mooney, talk a bit about that history because it didn't start that way. The very first Kentucky Derby in 1875 was won by a Black jockey, Oliver Lewis, and 13 of the 15 riders were Black.
Katherine Mooney: “The skilled labor of African Americans is at the core of thoroughbred racing in America. From the 1600s onward, African Americans are deeply, deeply involved in all of the skilled labor that is necessary to get a thoroughbred athlete to the track. Nobody makes a fuss about it until right about the turn of the 20th century.”
So during Jim Crow? How did that change the sport?
Katherine Mooney: “What happened, I think, was that there had been highly, highly skilled African Americans who had been integral to the sport and had been famous for the work they had done before emancipation in the 1860s. Men who had grown up in that situation then pass their expertise onto the children of the freedom generation. So the guys who rode in the first Kentucky Derby often were young men, so they would have been born about the time that slavery ended. And they have learned their trade from men who had grown up in slavery, like Eli Jordan, and Ansel Williamson, who was the first trainer of a Kentucky Derby winner and was himself a formerly enslaved African American, and is one of the great founding fathers of our modern sport. Those guys became some of the most famous athletes in America. To me, they are really the first African American sports celebrities in the modern sense that we have.
What I like to tell people is essentially that what happened on the racetrack was ordinary Americans got to see what happened when African Americans got to compete, and be rewarded commensurate with their ability and their skill. And that was something that suggested that freedom for African Americans could also mean equality for African Americans.
And so there was sort of a two pronged attack on their work. The first part of that is essentially that for the first time, white jockeys and white stable hands are violently attacking African American jockeys and workers, which had never happened. I have no record of that ever happening before. And the other thing that happened was that young men who were learning the business were later denied the opportunity to be promoted, and then mentor other younger Black men.”
During Jim Crow, they're not allowed to race, and then the sport becomes whiter and whiter?
Katherine Mooney: “Yes. And it happens astonishingly quickly. Jimmy Lee, who did have Derby mounts around 1906-1907, was thought to be sort of the great new African American athlete. And very quickly, he's attacked by white jockeys. And I actually have a press report that's just deeply sad of him nearly getting in a brawl with a white jockey, because he says, ‘I know what you're doing. I know that you are trying to stop me from achieving what I can achieve. And you know, don't do that.’ And he actually had to go to Canada to ride, and his career just sort of disappears. And that happens really within the space of three to four years.”
Then there wasn't a Black jockey until the year 2000.
Katherine Mooney: “Yeah, the 1920s are the last time we have African American riders, until Marlon St. Julien gets a mount for Godolphin, which, of course, is the program that Greg graduated from.”
Greg, your great grandfather, Will Harbut, cared for a horse that is considered the greatest of all time, Man o’ War?
Greg Harbut: “Yes, correct. My grandfather cared for Man o ’War from 1930 to 1946. And actually gained a lot of notoriety with his association with the horse. It's very unique that my grandfather almost became as famous as the horse because of his monologue and the duration of the time that they spent together. There was over 1,000,005 visitors that came to hear the monologue and see Man o’ War. My grandfather was able to grace the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, which at that time was one of the most famous, if not the leading, publication. … And in his role with Man o’ War, he was able to ascend to a role that many African Americans at that time and era were not able to. Many African Americans before him and since then have not been able to ascend to the platform that he was able to.”
Today, how many Black owners are there?
Greg Harbut: “Very few of us. As far as an overall gauge, I don't have the exact numbers. Besides being an owner, I work in the sport as a bloodstock agent, which is buying and selling race horses. I'm very thankful when you know that I have an international clientele base that allows me to compete at the top tier level of my industry. But just from a bloodstock standpoint, I know there's only two other African Americans that are bloodstock agents. When you look at the overall numbers of bloodstock agents, we're in the thousands. Out of those thousands, there's only three of us. And out of the three, I'm the only one that's playing at the top tier level and one that will be able to compete on an international level.”
How many Black jockeys and trainers are there?
Greg Harbut: “Jockeys and trainers, we went from dominating to almost being a figment of the imagination. When you look at the top 100 trainers, there's no African Americans that are currently on the top 100 standings. When you look at jockeys, out of the top 100, there's only three African Americans. Kendrick Carmouche, Deshawn Parker, and a gentleman by the name of Patrick Husbands who drives in Canada. So you can see we're not very well represented currently in this industry.”
Do you experience any kind of racism or strange attitudes on the parts of your fellow owners? Do they look at you like you don't belong there?
Greg Harbut: “I've never had anyone just outright display racism. But at the same time, I would be naive to believe that many individuals I encounter on a day to day basis wouldn't be without unconscious biases. I believe the industry as a whole isn't necessarily up to date on how to deal with these unconscious biases, particularly when it comes with inclusion and diversity and the roadblocks that are systematically in place.”
Katherine, it doesn't sound like the industry has made much progress since the Jim Crow era.
Katherine Mooney: “Well, I would defer to Greg on that. But speaking as someone who looks at it from outside, there is progress in one thing, which is at least awareness of the history, which for a very long time, was not talked about so that it was actually erased. And it's only … in the last maybe 25 years that this is something that the sport has actually talked about at all. That it is one of the sort of great historical homes of African American sports celebrity. So that in a weird way is progress.
I do think that one of the dangers of talking about that history, and I am aware of this in my work, is that if we talk about the history too much, it becomes sort of a way to excuse not doing things in the present and saying ‘Oh well, look at all these extremely famous jockeys from 100 years ago. Isn't this great? We honor them.’ Well, okay.
But what have we done for the guys who are trying to get mounts now? I think it was Hank Allen, who was an African American trainer, who said that he had a friend who used to be able to get mounts when he told people he was Panamanian, and then they found out he was from Detroit. And they stopped giving him rides. I don't know how much of it is spoken. And I don't know how much of it is unspoken.
But I think the thing that Greg and his partners are trying to do where they say, ‘Okay, look, we have always belonged here, this is our place. And we are going to bring more people here to reclaim this as something people understand was always our place.’ That is very moving to me. And that was certainly something I thought about on Derby Day. And I also thought about the history of the derby as a place of protest in the 1960s. When Louisville went through a fair housing crisis, one of the things that activists talked about was was shutting down the derby, and Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali were both involved in that debate.
In the end, the local African American newspaper, The Liberal Defender, actually came out for not stopping the derby. And they took a lot of heat for it, but they said, ‘You have to understand whether we acknowledge it as a community or not, whether white people locally acknowledge it or not, the Derby is a great African American cultural tradition. It is one of the places where African Americans have really put their mark on American life. And we want it to run in that spirit. And I would really look forward to a time when the derby would be run in that spirit.”
— Written by Amy Ta and Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Angie Perrin