The whole world pays attention to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May for the Kentucky Derby. Track Changes brings you the people and stories who make up the track and its neighborhood the other 364 days a year. Take an immersive trip through historic and present-day south Louisville, from wherever you are in the world. Your tour guides have ridden horses, sewn jockey silks, parked cars and run juke joints, all in the shadow of the twin spires. Produced by the Louisville Story Program and Louisville Public Media.
Here in episode one we'll get to know Sam Alexander, a retired jockey and exercise rider who will be our tour guide throughout the series. Sam wanted to ride horses from as far back as he can remember. "I learned how to ride a horse on a tree stump,' he says. "A real saddle mounted on a tree stump with stirrups and a bridle." Sam was one of a very few Black exercise riders in his day who went on to get a jockey license. And what would sound like bragging from anyone else somehow sounds matter-of-fact from Sam. "I went from exercise boy to jockey to prove a point: You cannot outride me."
Imagine you grew up in a close-knit neighborhood. A miniature factory town where pretty much everyone worked at the nearby railyard and/or the racetrack. You bought a house, raised your kids there, and now you babysit your grandkids there. Do a lot of work for your church, and you’re helping them raise money to expand. Then the city says it’s buying your house. It’s buying the whole neighborhood. You hardly ever even go outside your community, but now you have to leave it for good. This is the story of Highland Park, a south Louisville neighborhood that once was, told by Sam Alexander and Wanda Mitchell Smith, who both grew up there.
Lots of people say they practically grew up at Churchill Downs. But Freddie Winston has pictures of himself in a baby crib on the backside of the track. Freddie’s mom ran Blanche’s, the “Black kitchen” for track workers, and his dad was a horse groom and trainer nicknamed Scotland Yard, for his honesty. In this episode we visit the backside with our tour guide, Sam Alexander, and follow Freddie Winston’s journey through horse grooming, training, and owning — and winning.
The end of our series (for now…?) takes us to the places racetrack workers go at the end of their workday: juke joints. Emma Pearl’s, “the chippy joint,” and their descendent, Syl’s Lounge. We meet Sylvia Arnett, who grew up just north of Churchill Downs in a neighborhood called “The Hill.” We FINALLY stump Sam Alexander on something (“I've been coming on this spot I'm on right now since I was 13 years old,” Sam says, standing in a spot where there is noticeably no hill. “And now I'm 70 and never really knew why they call it The Hill.”) And we learn about the legendary Jake Bachelor and his horse, Naughty Jake, AKA “the horse that almost ran.”