Bring Your Own Chair: How Black Horse Owners Are Working To Reclaim Their History

Allen Carter
Photo from Carter
Allen Carter

What do you do if you can’t secure a place at a table in which important decision-makers and business titans are gathered? 

You bring your own chair. Representation matters. 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion aren’t always prioritized in the horse racing industry. White men have historically dominated every facet of the fabled sport of kings, including owner, trainer, groomsmen, and jockeys. 

Greg Harbut, an African American and proprietor of Harbut Bloodstock Agency, has established a reputation as an expert in his respective field. His astute analysis and forecasting of successful racehorses have paid dividends as we saw three years ago. Harbut’s horse, Necker Island ran in the Kentucky Derby. 

Harbut Center
Harbut Center

“You know it’s very hard to get to the Kentucky Derby,” Harbut told LEO Weekly. “About 35,000 or so horses are born every year. Only 20 horses line up in the starting gate and you only have one chance to get to it, because you’re only allowed to run in it as a three-year-old.” 

Since the launch of Harbut Bloodstock Agency 12 years ago, Harbut has purchased a litany of Grade 1 winning horses, as well as providing opportunities for minority owners to invest in a horse of their liking, by purchasing shares in a particular horse. 

“One of the things that we pride ourselves on, is we get individuals involved from an ownership standpoint,” Harbut said. “Anytime you have an ownership stake ... you have a bigger voice. I think if we can get a lot more individuals involved in ownership … [it] has a domino effect where you see individuals involved … as well within the industry, whether it be employment, whether it be potentially serving on different capacities boards and other things of such.” 

Harbut’s ties to ownership in the horse racing industry have spanned multiple generations. He was thrilled to join his grandfather who ran Touch Bar in the 1962 Derby. 

However, Black individuals are frequently underrepresented in executive leadership positions and at the highest levels of administration in the sport. Though Harbut is an exception, Black racehorse owners are uncommon. In fact, it would be challenging to locate trainers or groomsmen of color. 

At 80-1 odds, Rich Strike’s victory at last year’s Kentucky Derby did a lot more than upset the apple cart and make the racing gods angry. The win at Churchill Downs spotlighted Jerry Dixon Jr.; Rich Strike’s groomsman as just one of the few Black horsemen in a profession that African Americans had a firm hold of. As was seen when the likes of Oliver Lewis, Isaac Murphy, Dudley Allen, and many others crossed the finish line first in 15 out of 28 Kentucky Derbys that occurred between the years of 1875 and 1902. 

But what happened to the Black jockey? When did they become a thing of the past? 

“Segregation, Jim Crow, Plessy v. Ferguson is what happened,” Chris Goodlett, historical curator at Kentucky Derby Museum explained. “You had the dominance of the African American jockey that goes back to European settler colonialism in the country that would eventually be the United States of America. African Americans were the dominant jockeys of that era. … racing is predominant in the South. What was the economy in the South? The plantation. Who ran the plantation? The enslaved. So, the very first jockeys in what would be the United States of America were enslaved.” 

click to enlarge Photo courtesy of Katrina Helmer.
Photo courtesy of Katrina Helmer.

Jim Crow laws, which were codified because of the cases of Plessy v. Ferguson and Jim Crow, have impacted African Americans’ lives across the nation, as is seen by the examples Goodlett provides. 

“Business methods, business operations, the Jockey Club, the governing body of Thoroughbred racing,” all changed according to Goodlett. “When you get to the late 19th, early 20th century, [it] makes it very difficult for Black jockeys to get licenses or does not permit African American jockeys to get licenses in the country.” 

Fortunately, these racist practices are extinct. But you’d think otherwise when looking for people of color in the crowd at a racetrack or when assessing the media that covers horse racing. 

The current lack of representation in the sport has left many insiders with a “bad taste,” specifically Leon Nichols, one of the founding partners and spokesman of As One Racing, an organization hoping to be a catalyst in the realm of educating and promoting diversity and inclusion throughout the industry. 

“It’s really bringing a collective, diverse group of people back to the sport,” remarked Nichols, also CEO and Founder of the Project to Preserve African American Turf History (PPAATH), a non-profit organization whose goal is to bring awareness to the contributions made by African Americans in thoroughbred horse racing. “It’s all about folks who look like me, to serve and be a part of the behind-the-scenes aspect of the industry and then just see where we can take this to.” 

According to Nichols, diversity, equity, and inclusion were the pillars on which the sport was built during its most successful and well-known periods. 

“At the core of why it’s important, it’s about business,” Nichols said. “The bottom line is if this sport doesn’t embrace a more diverse and inclusive business model, it’s going to continue to fall out of favor with consumers. … the world is increasingly becoming more diverse and inclusive, and you look at other sports franchises and properties and look at how they’re resonating around the world.” 

Enter Allen Carter and Leslie Nichols. 

At Carter’s and Leslie’s Silver Springs Farm Eqwine and Vineyard in Lexington, history is both mellowed and heightened. The married couple of over 25 years makes the most of their 22 acres. Together they raise racehorses, make wine, and provide visitors with a distinct farm housing experience. 

“My grandfather and father were in the horse racing industry, so I’ve always been around horses all my life,” said Leslie, former basketball player and coach at the University of Kentucky. “We bought the farm, with my dad being involved, he took care of Sunday Silence … and so when we bought the farm, we actually got a horse which we were thankful enough about Dad to be able to kind of advise us on how to take their things and stuff.” 

During this time Carter’s interest in horse racing took a similar trajectory to that of his wife. Princess Laila, his first thoroughbred, won a race in its first three tries. Carter would bring Princess Laila home, where she served as a broodmare. 

“The farm started off as Silver Springs distillery and then James Peppers, the big bourbon guy, purchased the farm and he made bourbon out here for years,” said Carter, former running back for the University of Kentucky. “It started off as a distillery and I’m just bringing back the old distillery. I asked Leslie’s dad, could you find me a horse? Cause I can’t cut 22 acres of grass.” 

The Carters’ success in the industry may be the exception that proves the rule. Harbut, whose accomplishments offer another, recognizes and appreciates the strides that have been made in the sport that raised him, he’d be remiss not to mention that systemic racism pushed away others that looked like him away from the table. 

“There was obviously a force that drove African Americans out of the industry,” Harbut said. “As I see it, a lot of the people that I encounter every day in this business are very welcoming. They’re very accommodating. This is an industry that I am proud to be a part of. But it would be naive of me to believe that certain individuals, certainly not all, but some individuals may have unconscious biases. So, like any sport or business, there are individuals that are going to have unconscious biases of our obstacles that we have to overcome as Americans or minorities in general.”