Let Them Eat Cake: An Open Letter to Bill Carstanjen, CEO of Churchill Downs Inc.

To be honest, I questioned writing this letter. Indeed if there was ever a David and Goliath story, this is it. I am a poet and writer in Louisville, Kentucky, directing this letter to Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen, a name that many may not know. But indeed, they know the institution Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby or what many call the “greatest two minutes in sports.” I am well aware that Bill Carstanjen probably has no idea who I am. Being the highest-paid executive at Churchill Downs with a compensation reported in 2018 as over $21 million, he has perhaps never once considered those that live just a stone’s throw from Churchill Downs. He has probably never thought that just outside of the iron gates of Churchill Downs is a community in despair — homelessness, prostitution, meth and opioid addiction, drug overdoses and shootings run rampant. He has probably never thought that I stare out of my windows through security bars in my community because to not have bars on the windows leaves my home susceptible to crime fueled by desperation. And indeed, these are desperate and challenging times.

America finds itself in a dreadful condition fighting two pandemics that cannot be seen with the naked eye, but both manifest in deadly ways. In March, many of us retreated to our homes due to the coronavirus under the direction of Gov. Andy Beshear, and we sheltered in place, waiting for the unknown. Days turned to weeks and weeks to months, as many of us accepted the reality of our new normal. Life as we knew it was severed in time, split in two, pre-corona and corona. Businesses adjusted, and the Kentucky Derby was moved to September. And even while the numbers of those infected by the coronavirus continued to increase, the Kentucky Derby didn’t waver from its plan of having 20,000 spectators in the stands. (the Kentucky Derby has recently reversed its decision, and the Derby will be run with no spectators.)

When I first read they were still having Derby, I thought there is absolutely no way that can happen! I have attended and performed at Derby events at Churchill Downs, and to believe 20,000 people gambling and drinking would adhere to the coronavirus guidelines that were put into place was ludicrous. Yet, Gov. Beshear went along with this plan even while telling us that groups of 10 or more should be avoided. Immediately, it dawned on me that in the state of Kentucky, Churchill Downs has the power.

If that be the case, I would expect the CEO of one of the most powerful institutions in Kentucky to use his power and influence to speak up about the growing racial pandemic that we face in our state and our nation. Unless Carstanjen lives in a bubble, there is absolutely no way that he does not know that the Louisville Metro Police Department killed Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, in her home. There is no way that he does not know about the ongoing protests in Louisville and the state of confusion, anger and sadness in this city. This is not a city that is concerned about horses running, but it is a city that is demanding justice. Understand, that life as we know it doesn’t go back to normal this weekend. We don’t have the luxury of pretending we do not see what is happening in this nation. We don’t get to ignore everything that is going on around us. We don’t get to sip mint juleps served over crushed ice as the nation burns.

The eyes of the nation are on Louisville. Instead of using this as a moment to speak the truth, Churchill Downs released a Kentucky Derby Health Plan, and buried in it is one sentence about Breonna Taylor.

“The role of the Kentucky Derby and its importance to our community and the nation as a whole takes on even greater significance this year. Over the past several months, our country has faced both the spread of COVID-19 and a moment of national reckoning with racial inequities following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others. These important issues deserve thoughtful discussion, continued conversation and subsequent action. To this end, the atmosphere at this year’s Kentucky Derby will not be the celebration it normally is. However, we’re optimistic that this time-honored event, which belongs to our community and our country, will serve as a progressive unifying force that can help bring us together.”

It is easy to sit in an ivory tower and make statements such as the one above; however, I question how horses running will be a progressive unifying force that can bring us together? How does Mr. Carstanjen believe horses running viewed by wealthy individuals will unify a city that has been torn and tattered by years of injustice? When Carstanjen mentioned in his interview below that, “The community in general overwhelmingly supports having the Derby,” what community is he referencing? When he says, “This is an important part of healing,” please tell me how? Tell me how the 146th Derby is an essential part of healing for a city in turmoil? How do I explain to my daughter, who is also named Brianna, when she has dreams that the police kill her during a traffic stop, that the Kentucky Derby will be a great source of healing for her? When he says, “This is an important part of our traditions and culture in our community,” whose traditions and culture is he referencing?

When was the last time Carstanjen spoke to my community? When was 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 cut the grass. The people that hand rich people their mint juleps? The everyday people that keep Churchill Downs running?

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When was the last time Carstanjen left the comfort of his CEO office and walked around the neighborhood? When was the last time Carstajen asked anyone in this community what can Churchill Downs do to improve this community? How can Churchill Downs be better neighbors? When is the last time Carstanjen spoke with anyone Black and asked them about the protests? When has he asked anyone Black in this city how they have been marginalized? Has he asked anyone in The West End how their life was affected when this city blocked off streets in The West End during Derby weekend.

If he doesn’t want to start outside of Churchill Downs, perhaps Carstanjen can start in his own backyard. How well has the Kentucky Derby honored the Black jockeys that won the Kentucky Derby? When was the last time he visited African Cemetery No. 2? Why is “My Old Kentucky Home,” a song of a slave being sold down South, still sung at the Kentucky Derby? Why is it OK for people to walk around drunk on Central Avenue during Derby, but if I were to do that same thing in The West End, Smoketown or South End, I would be cited for public intoxication? Why is it OK for the city to block numerous streets during Derby, but protesters cannot march in the street and demand justice for a murdered Black woman?

Then, go deeper and look at your organization. How many Black people or People of Color are in positions of leadership? How many Black people or People of Color are on the board with influence? How many Black people or People of Color are in positions where they have decision-making power? How many Black people or People of Color are on staff beyond the cafeteria, gift shop and stables?

Understand, Churchill Downs, as with many institutions in America, stands on the backs of Black people. According to “The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Black Jockeys,” “Former slaves and their sons starred at Churchill Downs in the 1800s. Not only was 1875 winner Aristides ridden by an African-American, he was trained by a former slave known for superb horsemanship, Ansel Williamson. Much like the equines he conditioned, Williamson was sold from owner to owner. In 1864, R.A. Alexander, proprietor of the famed Woodburn Stud Farm, purchased Williamson. After emancipation, the former slave continued to work with his former master as did a standout black jockey named Ed Brown who would train the 1877 Kentucky Derby winner Baden-Baden and eventually operate his own racing stable. By 1904, Black riders had been virtually banned from the major racetracks, including Churchill Downs and the complexion of the Kentucky Derby had been changed forever. Black participation dwindled and no African-American rode the race between 1921 and 2000, when Marlon St. Julien guided Curule to a seventh-place finish.”

So, when Carstanjen speaks of tradition and culture, take a good, hard look at the complete tradition and culture of Churchill Downs and ask yourself: Are we as an institution holding on to some long-held traditions rooted in racism, or are we contributing to this city and state in way that will help move the needle when it comes to race relations in 2020 and beyond?

To be clear, facing these questions and challenges doesn’t start with anyone under you, Bill. It begins with you. You are the proverbial jockey. You are steering the team. You are the CEO and your team will follow your lead. How you lead in this time remains to be seen. We have seen numerous sports institutions use this moment to speak truth to power. What will you do?

I challenge Carstanjen to hold true to his statement. If he truly believes, “These important issues deserve thoughtful discussion, continued conversation and subsequent action,” then he should start them and then follow through with action. He has the power. He has the influence. He has the resources. Do better than making a statement about Breonna Taylor buried in a coronavirus plan of action. Breonna Taylor and those in this city fighting for justice deserved more from this iconic institution than a few sentences among Derby coronavirus health regulations. Stand by what you have said, or the 146th Kentucky Derby’s running comes off as, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” better known as, let them eat cake.

Hannah L. Drake is an author, poet and spoken word artist. Follow her at writesomeshit.com and on Twitter at hannahdrake628.

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