By Katie Petrunyak
Growing up near Third Street in Lexington, Ron Mack spent much of his childhood playing football with friends on what was once the infield of the Kentucky Association racetrack, but he didn't realize that they were throwing a football on hallowed ground until years later. After playing football for the University of Kentucky and then building a career in commercial banking in Atlanta, Mack returned to Lexington in 2014 and began digging into the history of horse racing and the Kentucky Association.
What Mack learned through his research led to him founding Legacy Equine Academy (LEA)–an organization dedicated to bridging the contributions African America horsemen have made to racing throughout history to the future of the industry by introducing middle and high school students from a diverse background to the sport. Launched in 2016, the non-profit has partnered with the Fayette County public school system to introduce students to career opportunities in equine and agricultural industries and provide a pipeline for higher education and future job opportunities.
“I created the Legacy brand because we want to develop a legacy as far as our mission is concerned to pay homage to the legacy of the Black jockeys and horsemen who have been so instrumental to forming today's standards in the Thoroughbred industry,” Mack explained. “There's no shortage of books in the library, but I learned that people don't really know the history. Through that process, I founded the Legacy Equine Academy.”
LEA organizes field trips aimed to expose their students to various aspects of the equine industry. The group regularly hosts trips to the Kentucky Horse Park and the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs, often with 50 to 100 students in attendance. They have also taken students to Keeneland during the September Yearling Sale and to various breeding farms in Lexington including Taylor Made Farm. LEA has partnered with Spy Coast Farm, which specialized in breeding and development of performance horses, for the use of their breeding, development and education center for hands-on activities and career training.
One of the organization's main focuses is to make sure students have the opportunity to meet individuals from all aspects of the industry, from bloodstock agents and veterinarians to farm managers and racetrack officials. Mack said that one of the most important aspects of their outings is when students network with these industry professionals and get the chance to visualize themselves in a similar career one day.
“We have in-class sessions with the kids to give professionals in the industry an opportunity to talk about their career and what their career path has been,” he said. “The kids absolutely love it. You're exposing a new audience to the equine agriculture community and their questions are great. They're coming from a perspective of where they just don't know. The enthusiasm around our activities and our tours is just so rewarding to see that you're really changing a mindset when they realize those opportunities are out there.”
In the early days of the academy, trips were held during school hours, but during COVID they began running after-hour and weekend activities. This proved to be beneficial when it increased parent involvement and participation.
LEA provides scholarship opportunities for their students through the Legacy Foundation and also coordinates apprenticeship positions for students interested in certain aspects of the industry. Mack proudly shared the story of one student who joined LEA in the seventh grade. She soon became interested in agriculture and, with the help of a scholarship from the Legacy Foundation, is now majoring in Agricultural Science at Western Kentucky University.
Mack is quick to point out that LEA is only possible with the help of industry organizations. He named Keeneland, the Kentucky Horse Park and Spy Coast Farm as a few of their biggest supporters.
“We've had a great deal of support from the equine community and the corporate community,” he explained. “Part of our pipeline is developing and leveraging those relationships and resources. Through that, we're able to have the kids travel and get hands-on activities to expose them to all things equine. We are very proud of the alliances that we have created here over the last several years to grow what we do.”
LEA activities are also made possible through their annual Legacy Ball, a high-end charity event featuring food, live music and bourbon. Proceeds from the event benefit LEA and the many scholarships that the Legacy organization puts together every year.
Mack explained that the idea for the Legacy Ball actually developed before Legacy Equine Academy came about. When he was first learning about the history of racing, he came up with the idea of the Legacy Ball in hopes of educating the community about the historical accomplishments of African American horsemen. He organized a meeting with Claiborne's Seth Hancock to pitch his idea.
“I will never forget Seth's response,” Mack recalled. “Seth said they would support the Legacy Ball and that he thought it was a great idea, but he wanted to talk more about the industry at large as far as the racial makeup of the industry. After that conversation is when I created the Legacy Equine Academy because there was an opportunity to better educate young people and give them exposure and access to the professional opportunities in the industry.”
While the Legacy Ball could not be held in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID, it will return for it's fourth year on Saturday, April 30 at Fasig-Tipton. The event will be hosted by University of Kentucky basketball legend Jack Givens.
“We're offering the public an opportunity to help us support the mission that we're on to educate our young people,” Mack said. “This is our main fundraising mechanism to grow and get more resource for what we do. We want to have a very diversified group of folks come out and enjoy the event–whether they're industry folks, politicians or educators.”
As LEA continues to grow, they are working to broaden their reach geographically by expanding into Scott County outside of Lexington and into the Louisville area.
“This is where the corporate industry and the Thoroughbred industry can hop on board with us and support us, and we have already received a great deal of support from many organizations in the industry,” Mack said. “With the growth of what we do, we continue to need transportation for the organization and we continue to need funding to offer a broader, bigger footprint.”
To learn more about the Legacy Ball and Legacy Equine Academy, click here.