By Bill Finley
Greg Harbut's mission to make horse racing more diverse has taken take him back to the classroom. Starting in January, he began a lecture series as part of an entrepreneur residency program at Wilberforce University in which he delivers the message to the students at the historically Black university that getting involved in racing can be a terrific career opportunity. It's his latest attempt to help racing solve what is clearly a problem–its lack of diversity.
“It's a wonderful industry, an industry I hold near to my heart and an industry that has afforded me a lot of opportunities,” said Harbut, a bloodstock agent, which makes him one of the few Blacks in a prominent role in the sport. “From a factual standpoint, there just aren't minorities in this business. We have to make a strategic effort to go out and target people of color and market to people of color.”
The Harbut family history in racing traces all the way back to the early twentieth century. Harbut's great-grandfather, Will, was the long-time groom of Man o'War. His grandfather, Tom, became the stallion manager at Spendthrift Farm and co-owned a horse that ran in the 1962 Kentucky Derby. Because he was Black, Tom Harbut was not allowed to sit in the grandstand Derby Day to watch his horse race.
Greg Harbut's father did not get involved in the sport, but that didn't stop his son from going into the business. The owner of Harbut Bloodstock, Harbut specializes in finding top-class broodmares for his clients, many of whom are overseas. He is also the co-owner of Necker Island (Hard Spun), a starter in the 2020 GI Kentucky Derby.
Harbut's participation in the Derby at a time that Louisville was reeling over the death of Breonna Taylor, became a well-documented story and it caught the attention of Wilberforce's Dr. Taisha Bradley, the schools executive vice president and chief innovation officer. She knew that he had a story to tell, how an African American male can make it in a predominantly white industry.
“This is still a prime example about learning to break down barriers and allow your imagination to run wild,” Harbut said. “This will give exposure and the possibility for them to find what they're passionate about so they can achieve success and then explore it. We all start with one step.”
He said that about 30 students at the school that is located just outside Dayton, Ohio will attend his lectures and he hopes to work with others to get some of them internships in various segments of the industry.
Harbut, a Lexington resident, is also one of the founders of the Ed Brown Society. Born into slavery, Brown became one of the top horsemen of his time. He won the 1870 Belmont S. as a jockey and the 1877 Kentucky Derby as a trainer. The society will provide scholarships for minority students interested in going into racing. Harbut has also started Living the Dream Stable, a partnership focusing on attracting Blacks into ownership.
He said that the easiest way to connect with the younger generation is to tell them about the history of African Americans in the early days of the sport. Fifteen of the first 28 Kentucky Derbies were won by Black jockeys.
“I tell them about these trainers and jockeys,” he said. “They were the LeBron James and Michael Jordan of their era. Horse racing was pretty much the only sport in town and they dominated and they were well compensated.”
Today, there are only a handful of Black jockeys and from 1921 to 2000, not a single Black rode in the race. It's not just jockeys. There are very few Black trainers, owners, breeders or racing executives. There was a time when many backstretch jobs went to Blacks. Today, that no longer is the case as the predominant ethnic group on the backstretch is Latinos. Even Black fans of the sport seem to be in short supply.
It's a reason why Harbut sometimes feels out of place when at the racetrack.
“There are racetracks that could be a lot more welcoming,” he said. “I don't know how many times I have walked into a clubhouse or a suite and it's presumed that I am lost. No I am not lost. In fact, this is where I belong and I'm quite comfortable in this type of setting. Just retraining staff to better deal with something like this would go a long way.”
To Harbut, solving the diversity problems would not just be good for minorities, but for the sport as a whole.
“If you look at other sports that are considered mainstream sports that had been lacking minority participation, they understood why this was a problem,” he said. “They went out and made it a strategic point to appeal to a broader audience. A prime example is NASCAR. Through their diversity program, they produced Bubba Wallace. When a particular group is not represented in a sport they are not going to be fans. When you look around and you don't see anyone that looks like you, whether it's a trainer, jockey or fan, that's a problem. It's a barrier the sport has to overcome.”
Harbut is doing what he can and so is Ray Daniels, the co-owner of Necker Island and another co-founder of the Ed Brown Society. But Harbut says he cannot do this alone and that the entire industry must come together to sell itself to Blacks.
“You are dealing with an industry that could do a lot better when it comes to inclusion and diversity,” he said.
Harbut will continue to do his part, which, for now, means delivering lectures he hopes will open the eyes of Wilberforce students. The goal is simple–to convince them to give the horse racing business a try.