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Empty Grandstands, Protests, A Reckoning For Traditions: 2020 Will Be A Derby 'Unlike Any Other'

Empty seats at Churchill Downs for Oaks 2020.
Empty seats at Churchill Downs for Oaks 2020.

This year’s Kentucky Derby, an event just as much about its traditions as it is about horse racing, will look and sound very different.

For one, it’s usually the first weekend in May, postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. And besides the delay, this year the race will be held without fans. But that’s not the only reason the 146th Derby will go down in the history books with an asterisk. 

Louisville just marked 100 consecutive days of protests against racism and police violence; demonstrators plan to make Derby the 101st day. And this year, just as other athletes like players in the NBA have responded by refusing to play, there have been demands to cancel Derby -- something that’s never been done before

Haven Harrington III is CEO and host of Main Event Sports Radio and has covered the Derby for years. He said the race should be run; it’s the city’s "signature event." But while the horse racing industry doesn’t often weigh in on social justice issues, Harrington said now is not the time for silence.

“In this town, still waiting on bated breath for what's going to happen with Breonna Taylor and the officers involved...You know, it can't just be big hats, pretty dresses... you have to say and do something to acknowledge the situation,” he said.

Churchill Downs did issue a statement Thursday afternoon, mentioning how Black jockeys once dominated the race, but were then excluded, and acknowledging the pain community members feel right now as they wait for the state attorney general and FBI to conclude their investigation into the police killing of Taylor.

“The atmosphere of the Kentucky Derby will be different this year as we respond to those calls for change. This will be a Derby unlike any other. As it should be,” the statement said.

Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen has said it’s important to carry on, and has repeatedly said the Kentucky Derby can and should be a unifying event. 

“This is an important part of healing,” Carstanjen said on CNBC. “This is an important part of our traditions and culture in our community.”

Others disagree.

“Tell me how this will unify this community, the running of horses,” said poet and activist Hannah Drake. She lives near Churchill Downs and has had a simmering frustration with the Derby for years, especially as community aspects of the event, like Derby cruising which was banned by the city in 2006 over safety concerns, have gone away. But even more so recently, she said, as she faces possible arrest for obstructing a highway by protesting in the streets.

“But it's fine for Derby to inconvenience me and block off streets and not let me pass,” she said. “It’s fine because it’s Derby.”

Drake recently wrote an open letter to Carstanjen, asking for some self-reflection of the institution’s lack of Black representation and in her opinion, compassion. 

“When is the last time Carstanjen spoke to my community?,” Drake wrote. “When is the last time Carstanjen dwelled among the people? The people with no titles. The people demanding justice. The people that serve the food. The people that groom the horses. The people that clean the stables… The people that hand rich people their mint juleps?”

“This is an institution that can redeem itself and they need to start by asking themselves how can we be better neighbors to the adjacent community and to the city,” Drake told WFPL.

My Old Kentucky Home

One way Drake thinks they could do better is by dumping a tradition that, she said, is rooted in racism: the annual presentation of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Since the early 1920s, Derby fans have sung the state song before the start of the big race, sometimes weeping as they do so. It’s been called an “anti-slavery song.”

But Emily Bingham, a Louisville-born historian who is writing a book on the history of the minstrel song, said that’s inaccurate.

“It was written by a white man about a Black person being sold down river from Kentucky to the deep south to be sung by white men pretending to be black men on stages for white audiences,” Bingham said.

Bingham adds that the man who wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” Stephen Foster, was not an abolitionist. 

“It is true that he was writing in the, in the midst of the bestseller success of my ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin,’ the anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe,” Bingham said referencing what she’s learned in her research. “And it is true that his original version of the song was about Uncle Tom and not my old Kentucky home… but he was producing music for the blackface minstrel stage.”

He continued to contribute to a genre of entertainment that fed into harmful stereotypes and caricatures, Bingham said, that you can hear in other songs of Foster’s as well. 

On Friday, Churchill Downs said the song will still be played this year. But after some discussion, they decided to have it performed by a solo bugler following a “moment of silence and reflection.”

Drake said that’s not good enough. It still doesn't align with the company’s statement about empathy and change.

In a text, Drake wrote: "makes no difference. We all know the words to the song. You don't play it on a bugle and make it better. There is no way to dress up slavery."

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