Perhaps not surprisingly, Louisville’s hometown university contributes to and participates in Louisville’s signature event. What may not be as well known, however, is the depth and breadth of the University of Louisville’s ties to the Kentucky Oaks, Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Derby Festival and to the horse industry overall.
From furnishing primary medical and dental care to track workers throughout the year to providing music at the Derby, UofL maintains a significant presence at Churchill Downs. Throughout the first week of May, UofL will post content on its social media accounts highlighting these ties using the hashtag #UofLDoesDerby. All UofL Cardinals, past and present, are invited to use the hashtag for their Oaks-Derby posts, also.
The Kentucky Cancer Program at UofL established Horses and Hope with former Kentucky First Lady Jane Beshear in 2009. Horses and Hope was the first partner with Churchill Downs to celebrate cancer survivors and recognize them at the Kentucky Oaks. Donations to Horses and Hope continue cancer screening, education and awareness at Kentucky racetracks and offer breast cancer survivor events across the state. Horses and Hope and the Kentucky Cancer Program will once again assist with the Cancer Survivors Parade held just prior to the Oaks post time, and Horses and Hope will benefit from funds raised by sales of the Oaks signature cocktail, the Lily.
Each year, the UofL Department of Chemistry hosts its Annual Derby Lecture Series featuring the best minds in the field. This year’s 43rd annual lecture will be presented by Nobel Laureate George P. Smith, who won the award in 2018 for his development of phage display, a groundbreaking advance in which phages, a type of virus, are genetically manipulated to display certain proteins on their outer surface. The displayed proteins act as a label and provide a simple, effective method to purify these viruses from their surroundings. Smith’s free public lecture will be at 1 p.m., Friday, May 5, at Gheens Science Hall & Rauch Planetarium, 106 W. Brandeis Ave.
The UofL Cardinal Marching Band has served as the official band of the Kentucky Derby since 1936. Band students play multiple songs throughout the day, culminating with the state song, “My Old Kentucky Home” by Stephen Foster. The song is played just before post time and has an average viewership of 15 million on broadcast television. Faculty member and director Amy Acklin will conduct the performance this year.
Like many native Louisvillians, John Sutton Jr. eagerly anticipates Kentucky Derby day. The first Saturday in May is always a highlight — and he does mean always. For double UofL alumnus Sutton, this May 6 offers bragging rights that probably no other racing spectator can claim: He plans to attend his 84th consecutive Derby.
In the past few years, his perch as a guest of Churchill Downs has been a rare vantage point that few have the chance to enjoy. But his view as an 8-year-old in 1940 — after begging his father for a year to take him to the Louisville track – was a remarkable start to this tradition.
His betting strategy? Take a stab at the winner but place bigger money on place and show. “Most people, all they want is to have a winner. I hate to lose,” said Sutton, a retired bourbon distillery employee. “I really wasn’t a gambler in the strictest sense. I was just an odds player.”
And the stories he has from 83-going-on-84 Derbies? He and granddaughter Amber Sims, also a UofL alum, have written “A Real Life Exacta: Bourbon and 83 Kentucky Derbies.” The book is an account of his personal history, his love of racehorses and his unmatched feat of attending the Kentucky Derby for 83 consecutive years.
He said there isn’t much about the Derby he doesn’t enjoy. “I like the whole ambiance of the Derby – the dresses and hats and suits. Everyone is dressed up and drinking liberally. You’ll see sights you’ve never seen before in your life. And I’m looking forward to winning, of course.”
The Kentucky Derby Festival’s Royal Court in 2023 boasts a Queen and two Princesses from UofL. As members of the Royal Court, Hayley Benson, Mahshad Taheri and Valerie Tran, joined by two University of Kentucky students, welcome visitors from all around the world to the city and state at dozens of events. Additionally, Taheri, 21, a senior finance major in the College of Business, was crowned Derby Festival Queen at the 64th annual Fillies Derby Ball on April 15. In addition to tiaras (and in Taheri’s case, a crown and robe), an awesome wardrobe and front-row seats to the balls, parades and other events surrounding the Derby, the princesses each won a $2,000 college scholarship.
Student-run agency offers Derby week creative work for Churchill Downs
The Bird’s Nest, a full-service, student-run agency focused on strategic communications will lend their creativity to Churchill Downs leading up to the Kentucky Derby. The agency is developing content and managing projects during Derby week for social media channels, including TikTok and Instagram. Students also will assist with event planning and public relations aspects of the Red Carpet.
“I am so grateful for all the opportunities that UofL has made possible for me during my academic career,” said Savannah Newton, communication major and director of research for The Bird’s Nest. “The Derby has 149 years of history within the Louisville community, and the university is both a blend of innovation and tradition. I am honored to be a part of the legacy.”
Karen Freberg, professor in strategic communication and director of The Bird’s Nest says she appreciates the partnership with Churchill Downs. “This will be an incredible real-world experience for our students to showcase their creative, strategic and marketable skills in social media, public relations and event planning for their future internships and jobs,” Freberg said.
Financial impact of Churchill Downs and Derby week
The Derby is good for business in Louisville and Kentucky. Using data from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, Churchill Downs, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and IMPLAN, a software program for assessing economic impact, Equine Industry Program economist Thomas Lambert reports that in a typical year, the Derby and Churchill Downs generate $396 million in direct, indirect and induced spending and approximately $47 million in local, state and federal tax revenue.
- Estimated Derby week economic impact of Churchill Downs: $302 million
- Estimated Derby week direct, indirect and induced spending on hotels, restaurants, etc.: $94 million
- Total Derby week economic activity: $396 million
Lambert estimates that local and state governments provide $3-4 million in tax incentives and services to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky equine industry each year. However, these tax losses are offset by $17 million in tax revenue for local and state government generated by Churchill Downs and local businesses during Derby week.
Be on the lookout for sex trafficking, too
Each year, the joy of the Derby is marred by the knowledge that such large high-profile events can result in increased instances of sex trafficking.
Naomi Warnick, a pediatric emergency medicine fellow at UofL, suggests members of the public keep an eye out for any suspicious activity. If you suspect you have encountered someone who is being trafficked, report it by calling the human trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888. Law enforcement also can be notified.
While it can occur more during the Derby, Olivia Mittel, associate dean for medical student affairs in the UofL School of Medicine, said sex trafficking happens everywhere and at all times, and judgment should be used when making contact with anyone potentially involved in the situation.
“I think it’s important for people to become familiar with the various aspects of trafficking and recognize that many people are at risk, there’s not just one way. Asking the question ‘is anyone asking you to do something you don’t want to do?’ is one way to gauge whether someone is at risk.”
Warnick and Mittel are developing educational content for health care providers to help them recognize human trafficking and provide care for those who are trafficked or at risk of being trafficked. The project specifically relates to trauma informed communication with those who are affected by trafficking.
Melissa Currie is Kosair Charities Professor and Endowed Chair for Pediatric Forensic Medicine and chief of the Kosair Charities Division of Pediatric Forensic Medicine and stresses that the public should remember children can be victims of sex trafficking too. “The average age of entry into trafficking in the United States is 13 years old. It can involve the child being advertised, solicited or otherwise exploited for commercial sex acts. The exchange can involve money, drugs, food, attention or housing—particularly in children who have run away from home—in return for sex acts.”
Children won’t necessarily recognize that they are being used and exploited, Currie said. “Victims often don’t recognize that they’re being victimized and may identify their trafficker as a romantic partner. This is a complex crime that targets our most vulnerable children.”
The University of Louisville’s Equine Industry Program offers the only equine industry degree from an accredited college of business in the world, giving students the opportunity to turn their love of horses into a viable career. For 37 years, the UofL College of Business has been delivering equine degrees with a rigorous business focus and dedication to the combination of horse commerce, business enterprise and academics. The program provides a uniquely qualified workforce to Kentucky’s horse racing industry, as well as equine businesses across the globe.
The 362 program alumni include Gary Palmisano, executive director of racing for Churchill Downs Inc.; K. Amy Lawyer, who now directs the UofL Equine Industry Program; Thoroughbred trainers Lindsay Schultz and Jason Barkley; Corey Barberito, assistant trainer for Dallas Stewart; Hannah Boyle, social media manager at Churchill Downs; Sean Collins, assistant tour manager at the Kentucky Derby Museum; Paige Thompson, who recently opened White Tail Eventing in Cincinnati and Ali Sturtevant, who will graduate from veterinary school this spring.
Primary medical and dental care for the backside
Jockeys and trainers – not to mention racehorses – may get the glory and attention come racing season but associate professor of nursing Dedra Hayden considers their less heralded helpers the hardest working people she knows. Hayden considers it her privilege and mission to keep the backside workers at Churchill Downs and their families healthier through the nearby Kentucky Racing Health Services Center, steps away from the track’s barns that lodge the equine stars. UofL’s School of Nursing and the Kentucky Racing Health and Welfare Fund Inc. set up the clinic to provide comprehensive health care to backside workers – those who groom the horses, take them on their morning workouts, walk them after races, clean stalls and assist trainers in a myriad of ways.
Several times each year, the clinic also hosts a dental clinic for backside workers, conducted by the UofL School of Dentistry. Delta Dental sponsors a mobile dental van for School of Dentistry students to perform screenings, cleanings and exams. The next clinic will be held May 15.
“We’re basically serving an at-risk population that is uninsured,” said Hayden, clinic director since 2017. “They bring with them a unique set of needs as patients.” Recently named an exemplary project by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the clinic began as a safety net for the workers’ health needs and has evolved into a full-blown primary care site. “It’s a huge contribution to our community,” Hayden said. “If we didn’t have healthy backside workers, we wouldn’t have a Derby.”
Each year, UofL’s Equine Industry Program in the College of Business honors a top industry executive with the John W. Galbreath Award for Outstanding Entrepreneurship in the Equine Industry. This year, the 33rd recipient of the award was Michael Dickinson, who has spent his life deeply involved in the horse industry, first as a steeplechase jockey and trainer, as a Thoroughbred trainer and most recently as an innovator of racetrack surfaces. Over the past two decades, Dickinson has developed and refined Tapeta Footings, an all-weather synthetic material designed to improve safety for both equine and human athletes. Tapeta 10, the latest version of Tapeta Footings, has substantially reduced equine fatalities and outperformed conventional dirt and turf surfaces.
“The safety of the horse has always been a long-term goal of mine ever since I was a child when on small ponies I had to keep up with my mother who was on a Grade A International Showjumper. We used to jump post and rail fences, some with ditches and drops, and stone walls. Since then, I’ve always felt very grateful and indebted to all the horses I rode,” Dickinson said.