Thoughts, Musings and Reflections

Let Them Eat Cake -An Open Letter to Bill Carstanjen, CEO of Churchill Downs Incorporated

When you have power and influence, use it for good!

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 2019 as over 21 million dollars, 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 Governor Andy Beshear as 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 their decision and the Derby will be ran 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 were ludicrous. Yet, Governor 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 releases 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?

Breonna Taylor

When is the last time Carstanjen spoke to my community? When is 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?

When is the last time Carstanjen left the comfort of his CEO office and walked around the neighborhood? When is 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 is 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 okay for people to walk around drunk on Central 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 okay for the city to block numerous streets during Derby, but protestors 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, stand 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. 

43 replies »

  1. Anyone who has watched the slow deliberate demise of the poor struggling neighborhoods around the track that the CD folks have done nothing about save destroy and allow to further decline knows what the game plan has always been. Urban renewal by horse racing. If they spent ten cents on the housing going to waste all around them while indeed they serve ganache on a stick………….but they fully intend to mow down yet more housing for…… ????????

  2. Carstanjen is certainly no Bill Penzey, an aberration of capitalism. Churchill Downs and the Derby are only about making money for rich white people by providing entertainment for rich white people off of the backs of mostly poor POCs. Not only does Carstanjen probably feel like he’s really said something meaningful about BLM but I bet he actually feels sorry for the neighborhood that they won’t be making any money off of parking this year. Because a couple hundred dollars really goes a long way these days and the neighborhood should be grateful to CD for all of the opportunities it provides, if he even bothered to think about it.

  3. Sadly, the same is going down with regards to The Preakness in Baltimore. The area around Pimlico where The Preakness is held is looking like you describe the area around Churchill Downs and American descendants of slavery are living in indescribably appalling conditions. The rich whites do the same; drive up every year with their suits on and wilded out flower hats, the media descends on that display and makes a huge deal about it, but does not focus on what they saw while heading into the Pimlico Race track.

    Not to mention, Baltimore has had Black leadership for decades and there is no sign whatsoever that the Black folks in charge of Baltimore even give a damn about their own Black constituents. They just head to Pimlico along with the whites and completely ignore the urban blight, hopelessness, poverty, boarded up, falling down buildings because as long as rich whites and Black politicians are having fun, that is all that matters.

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