The Kentucky Derby Museum expands the Black Heritage in Racing exhibit
By Laura Ross
Photos by Kathryn Harrington and provided by the Kentucky Derby Museum
“Isaac Murphy is considered one of the greatest jockeys of all time,” said Rachel Collier, director of communications for the Kentucky Derby Museum. “He won 44 percent of his races, which is amazing when you consider today’s jockeys average 20 percent of their races won.”
Born an enslaved person, Murphy won three Kentucky Derby races and was known for being honest. He never accepted a bribe to lose a race and raced his heart out and won with integrity. His story, and that of countless other early Black jockeys, trainers, grooms and horsemen might have been lost to history, but the Kentucky Derby Museum is bringing their faces and stories to light in a prominent new permanent exhibition launched March 29, called “Black Heritage in Racing.”
The Museum has dedicated space and programming to the importance of Black jockeys and horsemen in an area of the Museum since 1993. But, Collier says, it was time for something grander. “Sponsors stepped up and we wanted to give these stories a place and time to shine,” she said. “The Kentucky Derby started with Black jockeys. In 1875, Aristides’ trainer and jockey were both Black. There are so many stories. It’s sad and unfortunate they were pushed out of the sport during the Jim Crow era with that history. That’s why these stories need to be told so they get the recognition they deserve.”
The expanded exhibition documents the stories and contributions of Black horsemen in the sport of Thoroughbred racing. With support from Churchill Downs and the James Graham Brown Foundation, the “Black Heritage in Racing” exhibit has moved from the second floor to a larger and more prominent location on the first floor of the Museum.
The new exhibition is just under 930 square feet, which is more than 20 times larger than the previous exhibit space. This increased footprint allows the Museum to display more of its collection of artifacts pertaining to Black history in the sport and adds new components such as oral history interviews and artwork.
“We’re excited to invite the public to see this beautiful exhibit. It is really striking, with a bold red theme throughout and larger-than-life images of these horsemen,” said Patrick Armstrong, President and CEO of the Kentucky Derby Museum.
“Our designers wanted the Black horsemen to stand out,” added Collier. “There aren’t many photos from the time, but the images we have are incredible. Our team made them larger than life and put them on the walls. When you see it, it draws you in.”
According to Collier, the first Kentucky Derby in 1875 had 15 jockeys, 13 of whom were Black. Over the next 28 years, the majority of Kentucky Derby races were won by Black jockeys. Collier says many guests to the Museum are surprised to learn that history.
In addition to Isaac Murphy’s story, guests can explore the stories of history-makers like Oliver Lewis, the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby aboard Aristides in 1875. The story of Ansel Williamson, the trainer of Aristides, is also featured. Many more stories are shared, including names from the modern era, like hip-hop star MC Hammer, who had a 3rd place finisher in the 1992 Kentucky Derby and won the Kentucky Oaks in 1991 with Lite Light.
Additionally, guests learn about Greg Harbut and Ray Daniels, the owners of Necker Island, a horse who raced in Kentucky Derby 146. Harbut’s great-grandfather was the groom to the legendary horse Man o’ War.
“It’s cool to see the family connections over the generations,” said Collier. “Greg Harbut’s great-grandfather is mentioned in the exhibition, and now here he is, as a contemporary Black horse owner, with his family’s oral history featured in the exhibit. It’s neat to see the family tradition and continuity and we were thrilled to have the Harbut family here for the grand opening of the newly expanded exhibit.”
The “Black Heritage in Racing” exhibition at the Museum has several layers, including the expanded exhibit, a new tour that launched in December and “Proud of My Calling,” a monthly, 60-minute live acting performance that brings the stories of Black horsemen to life. A “Black Heritage in Racing” traveling exhibit will be created over the next several months to travel to museums, community centers, visitor centers and churches. Additionally, the Museum teaches thousands of students each year through two programs focusing on “Black Heritage in Racing” during field trips, in-school teaching and virtual learning.
“It is very accessible to everyone, so we can all learn this important history,” said Collier. “We have always told these stories at the Museum, but it’s important to share that with the community as much as we can.”
“It was our team’s intent when designing this exhibit to give these individuals their time to shine,” added Armstrong. “It is our hope that when exploring this exhibit, people will walk away with a greater appreciation of the Black Heritage that is woven through horse racing. It is a distinct honor for us to be the keepers and tellers of their stories for years to come.”
Kentucky Derby Museum
704 Central Ave
Louisville, KY 40208