The Current·Road to November

Activists wanted this Black race horse owner to boycott the Kentucky Derby. Here's why he said no

Greg Harbut, one of the few Black horse owners in Derby history, was asked to boycott the race this year amid protests about racism and the police killing of Breonna Taylor. He explains why he refused the request.

Participating in race as Black owners is important representation, says Greg Harbut

Greg Harbut and his horse Necker Island at Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby. His horse ran in this year's race. (Submitted by Tara Anderson)

This story is part of The Current's series Road to November, a virtual trip down the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Louisiana, to meet some of the people whose lives will be shaped by the 2020 U.S. presidential election.


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Greg Harbut, one of the few Black owners of a competing horse in Kentucky Derby history, said it was a tough decision to decline calls to boycott this year's race over the police killing of Breonna Taylor.

"The industry that we love and participate in is not the most diverse or inclusive industry," said Harbut, president of Harbut Bloodstock in Lexington, Ky., and co-owner of Derby competitor Necker Island.

"We felt that by participating we were bringing awareness of the contributions that African Americans — [who] have before us — contributed to the industry," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"We felt that us being there was progress, and we can't mix up progress with protest."

One police officer has been charged over the raid that led to the death of Kentucky woman Breonna Taylor in March, but he wasn't charged for her death. Brett Hankison was charged with 'wanton endangerment' for firing into a neighbour's apartment. 2:03

Taylor, a Black emergency medical technician, was shot multiple times by officers who entered her home in Louisville, Ky., during a narcotics investigation on March 13. On Sept. 23, a Kentucky grand jury indicted Brett Hankison for shooting into neighbouring apartments, but did not charge any officers in connection with Taylor's death. Activists have vowed to seek greater accountability in the case.

An organization called the Justice and Freedom Coalition penned an open letter in July, calling for a boycott of the Derby by anyone involved, from spectators to vendors. 

The letter said the boycott would "put much-needed pressure on the state to not only complete a thorough investigation of Ms. Taylor's case, but to send a clear message that we will not allow these injustices to continue." 

The race went ahead Sept. 5. In a statement two days prior, Churchill Downs, the Louisville horse-racing complex that hosts the Derby, said the decision was made "in the belief that traditions can remind us of what binds us together as Americans, even as we seek to acknowledge and repair the terrible pain that rends us apart." 

Harbut said he was also privately urged by activists to drop out of the race. He co-owns Necker Island with Ray Daniels, who is also Black, and Wayne Scherr.

"Ray and I can certainly understand the sentiments from those individuals who called us," Harbut said. 

"We stand with the Black Lives Matter movement, and we stood in justice for Breonna Taylor, as we still are optimistic that some things will come about."

Tamika Palmer, mother of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by police, says the financial settlement with the City of Louisville, Ky., is not enough. 0:27

Protests may not sway 'solidly Republican' state

According to the CBC Presidential Poll Tracker, Republican nominee Donald Trump is leading in Kentucky as of Thursday afternoon, with 59.5 per cent against Democratic nominee Joe Biden's 38.6 per cent.

In 2016, Trump won the state's eight electoral college votes with 62.5 per cent of the ballot, a wide stretch ahead of Hillary Clinton's 32.7 per cent. 

Trump has defended law enforcement throughout his presidential campaign. He has insisted excessive force remains a tiny fraction of police interactions with the public, rejecting the idea of systemic racism and calls to defund police forces in favour of reallocating funds to mental health resources.

In June, he signed an executive order to encourage better police practices. The order calls for a database to track officers with excessive use of force complaints on their records, and offers financial incentives for police departments to partner with social workers when responding to non-violent calls involving mental health, addiction and homeless issues.

Biden has said he believes there is systemic racism in the U.S., but his platform focuses on reform, rather than defunding the police.

If elected, his administration would require local forces to agree to certain best practices to get federal funding, and to invest more in services, such as mental health counselling, intended to ease social problems.

Ian Hanomansing talks to a former police chief and a former deputy chief about the handling of mental-health calls, systemic racism, calls for change to policing and trying to rebuild public trust. 5:27

The protests around Taylor's death have coincided with wider protests about police violence and systemic racism, fuelled by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. 

Floyd, an unarmed Black man was pinned to the ground by a white police officer kneeling on his neck during his arrest.

Speaking to CBC News in June, Rev. Stephen A. Green said the movement that followed Floyd and Taylor's deaths would pivot to canvassing and voter registration.

"I think this is now a transformative moment for the movement as we focus on moving from protest to the polls and really leading to November and beyond," said Green, a community organizer and pastor with the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in New York.

Kentucky is solidly Republican. I don't know that the controversy here is going to change that.- Bob Heleringer

But Bob Heleringer, a former Republican member of the Kentucky House of Representatives, said that months of sustained protests over the death of Taylor won't do much to change the vote in staunchly Republican Kentucky.

"I don't know that it's going to be any kind of pronounced impact beyond Louisville, and perhaps Lexington," he told Galloway.

"Those are the last, I'll say, Democratic enclaves in our state," he said.

"Outside of those two urban centres, Kentucky is solidly Republican. I don't know that the controversy here is going to change that."

Grandfather barred from attending Derby

Protesters seeking justice for Taylor gathered at Churchill Downs on the day of the race, chanting "No justice, no Derby!" Earlier that day, Black Lives Matters protesters had faced off with pro-police demonstrators, who were armed, before police cleared the area. A separate group of Black protesters named NFAC, who have held armed protests in the city, also assembled at Churchill Downs, but all protests that day passed peacefully.

Heleringer, who is also a horse breeder, said it was "sad" to see it coincide with armed demonstrations.

Horses run at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, with its distinctive spires in the distance. (Submitted by Tara Anderson)

Describing the race as "the crown jewel" of Kentucky's horse industry, he said the two-week celebration has an "enormous multi-million dollar impact on our economy."

For Harbut, who comes from a long line of horse trainers and owners, the race also has a personal stake.

"My grandfather, who owned a horse in the 1962 Kentucky Derby, was unable to attend or be listed as an owner because of the social injustice and racial segregation at that time," he said.

He said that today, he's mostly treated with respect in the world of horse racing.

"But I would be naive to believe that there aren't certain individuals, with unconscious biases due to my race or ethnicity, who wouldn't have issues with me being in the position that I'm in."

He added that he and his co-owner Daniels "set out strategically a while back, to bring more minorities into this business, and bring awareness of the contribution that African Americans have made." 

Since their participation in the Derby, he said they'd been contacted by others in the horse racing world, including industry leaders, "to discuss what can be done to change these things."

Authentic led gate-to-wire to win the Kentucky Derby and dashed Tiz the Law's Triple Crown hopes. 1:54

This year's race was won by Authentic, giving trainer Bob Baffert a record-tying sixth Derby win. Necker Island finished 9th in a field of 15.

Harbut thinks his grandfather would be "very delighted" with his participation.

"I think he would be a mix of emotions, knowing that he was unable to attend in 1962, and in 2020, he had a grandson that was able to achieve that."

"I think he would be very proud if he was here to be able to see that."


Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC News. Produced by Ben Jamieson.

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