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Louisville Story Program Subjects Say Horse Racing Industry Has Changed

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Why does Louisville have so many fish fries?

The Louisville Story Program's newest project is a book sharing the stories of people who live near Churchill Downs or work on the track's backside. It's called “Better Lucky Than Good: Tall Tales And Straight Talk From The Backside Of The Track." On WFPL's In Conversation, the Story Program's deputy director and two of the people profiled in the book discussed their experiences on the backside and what it was like living near the home of the Kentucky Derby.

Our guests:

  • Sylvia Arnette, proprietor of Syl’s Lounge, who grew up the neighborhood near Churchill Downs called The Hill
  • Paul Goffner, retired groom
  • Joe Manning, deputy director of the Louisville Story Program

Louisville Story Program Deputy Director Joe Manning said it normally takes about 18 months to complete a project, but this project took three years. Manning said the book offers honest conversation about the industry through oral histories from people who lived and breathed horse racing. 

“I don’t think that this is a puff piece by a long stretch. This is just real people talking about their lives,” Manning said. “The people in this room have lived through a remarkable and really seismic shift in racing. In the course of two generations, three generations, things have changed a lot.”

Sylvia Arnette witnessed some of those changes when she lived in “The Hill,” a traditionally black neighborhood near Churchill Downs. Arnette said she and her neighbors were enchanted by the racetrack, learning to bet on horses and working odd jobs during the Kentucky Derby to make money. Arnette said for many years Derby Day was a big event for her neighborhood and also for West End residents.

“That was an exciting day [for The Hill]. We got up bright and early waiting for the cars to come to be parked, and the people were dressed to the hilt,” Arnette said. “[In the West End] they would start [Broadway cruising] Derby Eve and they would ride up and down Broadway all night long … things have changed. It will never be the same, but it was great during those days.”

The city officially banned Derby cruising in 2006.

Retired groom Paul Goffner said the horse industry has changed both for better and for worse during his time working in it. Goffner said Churchill Downs’ backside increased the number of programs for workers and their families, but he said horses are not being trained like before.

“They’re not sitting down on them like we used to. They’re just worried about getting through,” Goffner said. “It's all about money now — millions. You’d be surprised at the horses that they pay millions of dollars for that never make it to the races.”

Horse deaths are drawing more scrutiny on the industry. Reports of dozens of horse deaths at California’s Santa Anita track has solicited calls for reform, and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission only recently revealed details of horse deaths after an investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and a state attorney’s appeal.

Goffner worked as a groomer from the 60's until 2011, and says he witnessed horse deaths during his time, too.

Kyeland Jackson is an Associate Producer for WFPL News.