Tom Eblen

Lexington once had a racetrack downtown. This man worked there. He might be the last.

The Kentucky Association track in Lexington, circa 1920. It stood in Lexington’s East End neighborhood for more than a century before it closed in 1933 during the Great Depression.
The Kentucky Association track in Lexington, circa 1920. It stood in Lexington’s East End neighborhood for more than a century before it closed in 1933 during the Great Depression. Keeneland Library

Before there was Keeneland, there was the Kentucky Association track. It stood in Lexington’s East End neighborhood for more than a century before it closed in 1933 during the Great Depression.

Elias “Shug” White might be the last person alive who worked at the historic track. He will be honored Thursday at the second annual Phoenix Festival at the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden, at East Third Street and Midland Avenue.

White, who turns 96 this month but has the fitness and memory of a much younger man, said he spent one boyhood summer sneaking off to the track early each morning to exercise horses for Dixiana Farm — until his grandfather caught him.

“I guess he got suspicious of why I’d been up so early. … But I had been up there about a month before he detected it,” said White, who was raised by his grandparents after his mother died giving birth to him.

“One day he followed me up to the racetrack and I didn’t know it, and when he got up there I was walking these horses around,” he said. “Boy, he got on me something terrible. He told me he didn’t want me to do it anymore because he felt like kids who worked around a racetrack didn’t amount to much.”

So his career in the Thoroughbred industry was cut short, but White says he managed to spend a lot of time at the Kentucky Association track, watching races and leaving early enough to wipe dust off patrons’ cars for tips.

“Some of them’d pay us a dollar, some give us 50 cents, and some wouldn’t give us nothing,” he said. “But I’ve seen the time I’d come home with 9 or 10 dollars.”

White says many of his childhood friends came from racing families, including the two sons of Will Harbut, one of Man o’ War’s three black grooms after the great racehorse retired at stud in Lexington.

The descendants of Harbut and Cunningham Graves, Man o’ War’s last groom, also will be recognized at the festival, from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday. The free event is organized by Phoenix Rising, a group dedicated to highlighting the often-forgotten role that black men played in racing in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In addition to backside workers, many of the best jockeys were black until Jim Crow laws and racial discrimination ruined their careers. Among the most famous were Isaac Murphy, who became wealthy and built a mansion where the art garden now stands; Jimmy Winkfield, who lived next door to Murphy and left Lexington for a brilliant career as a jockey in Europe; and Oliver Lewis, who won the first Kentucky Derby in 1875.

Phoenix Rising takes its name from the Phoenix Stakes, the nation’s oldest Thoroughbred stakes race. It was first run at the Kentucky Association track in 1831 and is now on the opening day of each Keeneland fall meet. Friday marks the 165th running of the Phoenix Stakes.

The festival will include live music, refreshments, art activities for kids, and an art demonstration by Lexington wood sculptor Lavon Williams.

White followed his grandfather’s advice and never worked in the horse industry again. He served in the Army in Europe during World War II and spent his career doing custodial work for many Lexington businesses, including St. Joseph Hospital, where he was on the staff for three decades.

He said, though, that he has been a lifelong fan of racing.

“I was always fascinated by horses,” he said. “Always liked to go around the track early in the morning and see them exercise. Didn’t I love horses!”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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