Necker Island a Derby Horse With a Timely Cause
RSS Feeds Wednesday, September 2, 2020

To most observers, Necker Island will be little more than a longshot when he takes his spot in the starting gate of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs.

Facing a brace of graded stakes winners in a race that has been most kind to favorites for the bulk of the past decade, Necker Island has been a purse nibbler in his three graded stakes engagements, his best effort coming in the July 8 Indiana Derby (G3) when he checked in third.

But Necker Island's past performances and speed figures are somewhat beside the point to Necker Island's owners—Greg Harbut, Raymond Daniels, and Wayne Scherr. They claimed the Hard Spun colt out of a June allowance/optional claiming event at Churchill for $100,000. Simply getting to the Derby—Necker Island clinched a spot with a third-place finish in the Aug. 9 Runhappy Ellis Park Derby—is a significant victory for his new owners, two of whom are African-American.

Isaac Murphy's three Derby victories in the saddle between 1884 and 1891 were indicative of the major contributions of African-Americans to horse racing in that era, when 15 of the first 28 editions of the race were won by African-American riders. But because of racism and a changing sport, those riders were pushed aside from jobs as trainers and jockeys. 

By the mid-20th century, African-Americans that remained in the sport worked as racetrack grooms or farm staff. As those jobs have been populated more recently by Hispanic workers, African-Americans have largely disappeared from the scene.

Harbut, who formed Harbut Bloodstock in 2010, is doing his part to remedy that vacuum. In addition to his successful business that specializes in buying breeding stock for Asian interests, Harbut has formed the Living The Dream owner syndicate, racing a handful of horses including graded stakes-placed Heavenly Hill.

Harbut's name, of course, is familiar to many fans of the sport. His great-grandfather was Will Harbut, who became famous as the groom of Man o' War. He was the person who educated Man o' War's many visitors with information and stories about the original Big Red, who is thought of—along with Secretariat—as one of the two greatest horses of the 20th century.

Will Harbut was also a successful businessman, landowner, and farmer in the Lexington area, and the father of Tom Harbut, who worked as stallion manager for Harry F. Guggenheim and also bred and owned Touch Bar, who started in the 1962 Kentucky Derby.

It is not lost on Greg Harbut that his grandfather, because of the color of his skin, was not allowed to sit in the Churchill grandstand in 1962 to see his horse run in the Derby.

It is into that legacy that Harbut and his partners step as they proudly campaign Necker Island in this year's Run for the Roses. Scherr, a longtime horseman from North Dakota, owns a majority interest in Necker Island and is fulfilling a lifelong dream by having a runner in the Kentucky Derby. Daniels and Harbut are both African-American, and participating in the Derby is satisfying on multiple levels.

"I knew my grandfather very well, and it was a proud moment for him to have a horse in the Derby," noted Greg Harbut. "Unfortunately it wasn't a moment he was allowed to participate in. He owned and also bred the horse, but he wasn't able to share in the experience. He was very proud and very disappointed."

Harbut started Living The Dream in 2018 with an eye toward expanding awareness of horse racing, and the opportunities therein, to minority groups.

"One of the things Ray (Daniels) and I set out to do was to bring awareness to the African-American community about the history of the sport and the contributions that African-Americans have made to it, and present potential careers within the industry," said Harbut. "It's significant for people to know how they can become engaged and realize they can be participants. We want to show them how they can proceed with that."

To that end, Harbut has just launched Will Harbut Racing, which will be tailored toward forming partnerships to race quality bloodstock while also emphasizing minority participation. Daniels, a Lexington businessman who last year sold a chain of Waffle House restaurants, was one of the partners on Heavenly Hill, who was claimed for $16,000 and ran out some $54,000 in earnings before being sold for $100,000. Daniels, encouraged, wanted to play in the deeper end of the quality pool, which led to the claim of Necker Island.

"I'd be lying if I said we didn't have the Derby in mind," Harbut noted of the June 13 claim of the son of Hard Spun at Churchill Downs. "The horse had a lot of hype as a 2-year-old, and he hasn't ducked anyone in his races."

Necker Island, bred by Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings out of the Mr. Greeley mare Jenny's Rocket, finished fifth in the Swale Stakes (G3) behind Mischevious Alex, fifth in the Gotham Stakes (G3) behind that same foe, fourth in the Unbridled Stakes behind Dr Post, fifth in the Matt Winn Stakes (G3) behind Maxfield, and fourth when claimed, behind Art Collector.

"He just wasn't finishing, but he wasn't getting blown out of the water, either," said Harbut. "It's a lot of money for a claim, but we figured if he came back sound, we'd have a decent horse; and if he improved, we thought he could make some noise in the Derby prep races."

And that is exactly what has happened. Harbut and Daniels' participation in the Derby is bound to increase awareness of the sport as all eyes turn to horse racing for one afternoon in September. But Harbut and Daniels are taking it a step further by establishing the nonprofit Ed Brown Society, named after the legendary trainer, which will concentrate on familiarizing college-age minorities with opportunities in racing such as racetrack management and attorney work.

The timing right now is particularly poignant for Harbut and his endeavors. Protesters throughout the United States have called for racial justice throughout the spring and summer and Louisville has been at the center of those demonstrations following the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor by police in March while Taylor was in her home. Protests are anticipated outside of Churchill Downs on Derby Day.

"It's no secret that our country is going through a lot of turmoil right now," Harbut said. "No matter the year, to be able to participate in the Kentucky Derby as owners, and follow in the footsteps of hallowed individuals is humbling and gratifying. There haven't been a lot of African-Americans participating in this race in modern times, and it's the race everyone asks about; the pinnacle of how industry participants are gauged."

 -Article courtesy of the BloodHorse

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