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A conversation with the Derby's 1st Black trainer in over 30 years


Today marks the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby at the Churchill Downs racetrack. Feathered and flowered extravagant derby hats are on display. Thousands and thousands and thousands of mint juleps are being sipped.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's chilly and gray at Churchill Downs after a rainy night, but, as they say, nothing can dampen the enthusiasm of the great Kentucky Derby.

DETROW: The race itself only lasts around two minutes, but the tradition runs deep in America.


CHRIS GOODLETT: We've had two world wars, a depression, pandemics. We've always run a Kentucky Derby.

DETROW: That's Derby Museum curator Chris Goodlett in an interview with CBS News. A few days ago, excitement ramped up as post positions were assigned to the horses in this year's race. The last horse to be called?



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Thirteen, West Saratoga.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Harry Veruchi credits veteran horseman Larry Demeritte for finding West Saratoga.

DETROW: Trainer Larry Demeritte is in his 70s, and this will be his first-ever Kentucky Derby. Born in the Bahamas, Demeritte will be the first trainer from the Caribbean to participate in the Derby, and just the first Black trainer to do so since 1989. Black trainers, jockeys and grooms are a rarity at the Derby these days. That wasn't always the case.


RONALD MACK: The first Kentucky Derby was in 1875. And Oliver Lewis, an African American, won the first Kentucky Derby. And that particular horse was trained by Ansel Williamson, who was African American himself.

DETROW: That's Ronald Mack, founder of the Legacy Equine Academy, in a Kentucky Educational Television documentary about the history of Black horsemen.


MACK: In that particular race, 13 of the 15 jockeys were Black jockeys. Fifteen of the first 28 Derby winners were Black jockeys. And so there was dominance and prominence in the industry.

DETROW: Black people played a key role in the history of the Kentucky Derby, but there hasn't been a Black trainer in the Derby for decades. Today, trainer Larry Demeritte changed that. I spoke to him earlier in the week as he was getting ready for the Derby.

Well, Larry Demeritte, thanks so much for being here.

LARRY DEMERITTE: Thank you for having me on.

DETROW: There's been so much of a focus on the milestones here, especially the fact that it's the first time in decades that a Black trainer has a horse in the race. But I want to start with the milestone for you. This is your first-ever Derby after such a long career. How are you feeling?

DEMERITTE: Yeah. I'm feeling great. I'm excited. You know, we all have different styles running, different ways of getting them ready to this race. But the ultimate goal is who gets there first. And I'm confident in the horse I'm taking there. I won't trade him for any other in the race.

DETROW: When did you first start working with horses?

DEMERITTE: Before I know myself. My dad was a horse trainer, and he put me on the horse's back when I was pretty young. So, like I said, I know them before I know myself. And I know I wanted to be in the horse industry. So I look at it this way. I said, well, I don't want to be a jock because their career don't last long. I know I'm not going to be just a worker. So I had to be a horse trainer because I could do that till I die.

DETROW: And are you at Churchill Downs right now? Where are you as we talk?

DEMERITTE: As we speak, I'm heading home from Churchill Downs. I was there from about 6:00 this morning, got home late last night.

DETROW: I imagine there's a lot of, you know, you've got the feelings of being here. You have a horse in the Derby. But also, you've got a lot of work to do to get ready for race day.

DEMERITTE: Yes. You know, it's all paying attention to detail. And you don't want to miss something on leave any stone unturned. So it's just staying there and stay focused. And that's the key is the smallest thing can make a difference in a horse getting there or not, you know.

DETROW: Can you tell us more about the horse's personality? What's West Saratoga like?

DEMERITTE: Oh, man, he's a jewel. He's a jewel. He's such a cool horse. He loves the camera. He likes to style and pose when you're taking his picture. He doesn't get rattled at all. I haven't seen this horse rattled since the time I had it. Just a laid-back horse, carries good, fresh, eats well. That's what makes him so special.

DETROW: I want to ask you about some of the broader trends that that people have been focusing on when it comes to your participation in the race. And the first is your personal story. You're been battling cancer for a long time, three separate diagnoses over the years. How are you feeling physically? And how much are you thinking about the odds that you've personally beaten to get to this point this week?

DEMERITTE: Yeah. I don't look at it like that, that I beat the odds. You know, I am a person of faith. And, you know, I had a friend, a good close friend I lost to cancer. And I told him, I said, you know, Cojo (ph), everybody prays for you to get well. I said, I don't pray that prayer. I pray for you that God is not through with you yet because when your work is finished on this earth, you're going to go home. So that's the way I look at my life, you know.

So I feel like I'm here for a purpose. And I think this is my purpose, the opportunity to make a difference in someone's life who's either battling cancer or someone with a young kid would need to be encouraged and believe that anything is possible. But you have to work at it, you know. that's the way I look at life. And, you know, the funniest thing right now, although I have the cancer, that is not the main issue what bothers me. It's the other disease I have, amyloidosis. That's the one that's really beating me up right now.


DEMERITTE: But I still never let that stop me from being focused on the task at hand.

DETROW: I mean, I imagine that makes it tougher. But I'm glad you're still able to do the job. And it seems like a physically demanding job.

DEMERITTE: But you know what?


DEMERITTE: My job ain't tough. When you do things you love, it's nothing that's tough about it. Get that smile put on your face when you see a horse train good that morning for you, you know. And that's the good thing with Saratoga, you don't have too many bad days.

DETROW: Yeah. And I want to ask about something that's also gotten a lot of attention. You're the first Black trainer since 1989 to participate in the Kentucky Derby. And before 1989, there hadn't been one since 1951. So this is a once-every-few-decades occurrence. Why do you think so few Black people are in positions of prominence in this sport, especially given its historic heritage?

DEMERITTE: That's a good question and could be a hard question too because it's more reason than one.


DEMERITTE: No. 1, we don't have enough Blacks in it to begin with...


DEMERITTE: ...Because a lot of Blacks that have the finances, could afford it, either they don't know the game or they don't want to get into it. And I don't look at it like that. I don't like getting in to make talk about the races and the race stuff because the way I look at it, all of my clients are white, so I can't make this a Black-and-white issue, you know. I'm just thankful for the opportunity to do this. But I don't think we should make it that, hey, this guy got a Black barn, I need to be in this barn. No. I want people in my barn because they believe in my ability to train a horse.

DETROW: So you were talking - about on the question of Black trainers, you said that a lot of people might just not have the financial resources. Do you think there's anything big picture that the racing world can do to kind of open the doors to the sport to more people, given the hurdles that there are?

DEMERITTE: Yes, I think so. I think, for one thing, is we need to sell our sport better than we do. The game has come down to now where we need to form more syndicates because it gets pretty costly now to own a racehorse. You know, it's like any other sport - car racing and all of them. They all have syndicates where someone sponsors, you know, car. I feel like that's what we have to do to let the middle class know in America that it's not a sport of kings. Anyone could play it. And the reward is so great when you have success in it.

DETROW: That's Larry Demeritte. He trained West Saratoga, who's running in the 150th Kentucky Derby. Larry, thank you so much.

DEMERITTE: OK. Thank you for having me, and any time if you all want to. After I win the Derby, you can call me.


DETROW: And in a Kentucky Derby that allowed us to let the clichés fly, Mystik Dan won by a nose in a photo finish. Both of those phrases did in fact truly apply. West Saratoga finished 12th. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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