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Kentucky Derby Museum Expands Exhibit Honoring Black History In Horse Racing

Horse trainer Mark Simms toured the Kentucky Derby Museum's expanded Black Heritage in Racing exhibit.
Horse trainer Mark Simms toured the Kentucky Derby Museum's expanded Black Heritage in Racing exhibit.

The Kentucky Derby Museum will debut an expanded Black Heritage in Racing exhibit to the public on Monday.

The museum introduced a similar exhibit in 1993, but officials said at a ribbon cutting Friday the latest version will be 20 times larger as well as more prominent, because it's on the ground floor for the first time.

Kentucky Derby Museum president and CEO Pat Armstrong said the exhibit aims to “showcase the fantastic stories of these Black horsemen, who enjoyed incredible success in winning early Derbies.”

The exhibit features artifacts from past Derby winners and other pioneers of the sport. Black jockeys rode to 15 victories between 1875 and 1902. 

The other two components of the exhibit are the 90-minute Black Heritage in Racing tour, a walking tour that through the grounds at Churchill Downs, and the new “Proud of My Calling” experience, which is a monthly live performance.

Cleo Battle, chief operating officer of Louisville Tourism, said the exhibit is part of a larger program, the Unfiltered Truth Collection, which institutions across Louisville launched earlier this month.

The Derby Museum’s installation goes beyond the successes of Black competitors. It also tells stories of the racism they faced as Jim Crow laws took hold throughout the country. Moving into the 20th century, segregation limited the role of Black Americans in horse racing.

The legacy of those barriers lingers to this day. But Ray Daniels and Greg Harbut are pushing for change. The duo became the first Black owners in over a decade to have a horse race in the Kentucky Derby when Necker Island competed in 2020.

Daniels said he wants to encourage more Black ownership within the sport, and hopes the exhibit can promote further change.

“We feel like this is an unbelievable industry,” he said. “And the exposure of this museum alone will allow us to introduce the careers, opportunities, the jobs, the progress and the ownership that will, we hope, make this a very successful venture in the African American community.”

Horse racing is a proud tradition in Harbut’s family. He’s a third-generation horseman, starting with his great-grandfather Will Harbut, who worked with Man o’ War, one of the most famous horses in Derby history.

“It's very important to have this exhibit to honor those that have come before us, as well as to teach the future generation [about] contributions that African Americans have made to the industry,” Harbut said.

The Kentucky Derby is expected to move forward with in-person spectators on May 1.

John, News Editor for LPM, is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email John at jboyle@lpm.org.