Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Harbut Carries Dual Legacy, Extra Emotion Into This Year’s Derby - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Harbut Carries Dual Legacy, Extra Emotion Into This Year’s Derby

Ray Daniels (left) with 2020 Kentucky Derby contender Necker Island and Greg Harbut (photo courtesy of Greg Harbut)

Greg Harbut is having a hard time keeping his emotions in check ahead of Saturday's 146th running of the Kentucky Derby, both because he'll have his first entrant in the race in Necker Island, and because his ownership along with friend and client Ray Daniels represents so much more than the silks on the jockey's back.

An African-American man from a racing legacy tracing back to the legendary Man o'  War through his great-grandfather Will Harbut (the stallion's groom for 16 years), the 35-year-old Harbut knows just how much it means to be able represent his history on the sport's biggest stage.

“I'm feeling a lot of emotion, and just trying to harness that,” said Harbut, who runs a bloodstock business out of Lexington, Ky. “I'm excited to join the ranks of those who come before me, to take part and be there with such a sentimental family connection.”

Harbut was especially close with his grandfather, Tom Harbut, who groomed 1953 Kentucky Derby winner Dark Star and was later a co-owner in a Kentucky Derby runner, Touch Bar, in 1962. Times were different, then; not only did Harbut's name not appear in the racing program, but when Touch Bar stepped onto the track before finishing 11th in the Run for the Roses, Tom Harbut wasn't able to be in the stands. They were for whites only.

Five years later, in 1967, all the pre-Derby events were cancelled due to rising racial tensions in Louisville, a result of housing discrimination and protests in support of a fair housing bill. One group of activists even held a sit-in on the stretch at Churchill Downs during a race on Monday before the Derby, causing jockeys to pull their horses up abruptly.

This year, racial tension has been building not just in Louisville but across the entire nation. Locally, the ignition point was the death of Breonna Taylor at the hands of city police back in March, prompting national leaders from several different groups to stage demonstrations in Louisville.

“I do agree that Black Lives Matter, and that there should be justice for Breonna Taylor,” Harbut said. “Across the country, not only in racing, I think we have to be willing to do three things: we have to educate ourselves on things we're not familiar with, we have to be willing to change our viewpoints and behavior, and we have to be empathetic toward others.

“I also think the racing industry as a whole could do a lot better with inclusion… This is a $100 billion industry, and there's just not a lot of African-American representation.”

Harbut stressed the history of African-American participation in racing; 15 of the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby were won by black jockeys, and the horses were cared for by any number of black grooms and trainers and exercise riders.

As it stands today, however, there hasn't been African-American ownership in the Derby in 13 years. Harbut knew the statistics when he started his own bloodstock business in 2009, and has long held the goal of bringing in more African-American owners.

“That's something I've been working very diligently on, because I believe it has a trickle-down effect to the rest of the industry,” Harbut explained. “We are entrenched in horse racing history; African-Americans dominated this sport for so many years. I want people to know the contribution of African-Americans to the sport. It's also a wonderful sport to be in, for the most part very accommodating and welcoming to everyone.”

Daniels, a Lexington-area businessman, heard Harbut was seeking African-American owners and decided to join forces and develop a couple of syndicates together.

“It was always my goal and dream to pursue the opportunity, but to do it in the right way with the right people,” Daniels said in a Wave3 interview this week. (

Daniels and Harbut are partnered in Necker Island with co-owner Wayne Scherr, for whom the Derby has long been a bucket-list item as well. Scherr and trainer Chris Hartman had tried for several years, buying at the sales, but hadn't quite found the one.

“Wayne thought it'd be a good idea to claim one,” Hartman said. “I said, 'Wayne, nobody runs a Derby horse for a tag!'”

In a normal year, Hartman would likely be right. When the global pandemic delayed this year's Run for the Roses, though, the opportunity presented itself when a well-bred colt was entered for a $100,000 tag at Churchill Downs in early June.

“I thought I could probably put something together, though these guys have never been partners before,” Hartman said. “He was running with Derby horses, with Art Collector, and I knew that they had big aspirations with that horse.”

Harbut had known Hartman for about five years, and had worked with the trainer before under one of Daniels' racing partnerships, Living The Dream Racing. When Hartman called about claiming Necker Island, Harbut was all in.

“They paid $250,000 for him as a yearling, so obviously the pedigree and conformation were there,” Harbut said. “Necker Island had a lot of buzz around him in his 2-year-old year, and he tailed off a bit as a 3-year-old. But when you look at his record, they didn't duck or dodge anyone, and he would run mid-pack in full fields and wasn't disgraced. I have all the respect in the world for (former trainer) Stanley Hough, too. One-hundred thousand was a lot of money for a claim, but we hoped we'd figure a few things out, tweak a few things and move him up.

“Sometimes, a new set of eyes on a horse makes all the difference.”

Harbut brought Daniels into the partnership with Scherr, and later bought in to the colt himself under the name Will Harbut Racing Stables, honoring his great-grandfather's contribution to the sport. (Coincidentally, Necker Island's pedigree also traces to Man o' War, ten generations back.)

Necker Island has since run third in a pair of stakes races, the G3 Indiana Derby and the Ellis Park Derby. Harbut believes that had the son of Hard Spun had a bit better racing luck, especially leaving the starting gate, he'd have been able to finish even better in those starts, so the Kentucky Derby starting gate doesn't feel like as big a stretch as Necker Island's race record might suggest.

He'll still be a longshot on race day, but anything has proven to be possible in the Sport of Kings.

“There's one thing I do know, you won't win the race if you don't have a spot in the gate,” Hartman said congenially. “We're gonna have to have a huge blessing to get a piece of it, but we're hoping for the best. You know, this wouldn't have even taken place had the Derby been run on the first Saturday in May. It's pretty interesting to be on the ride with these guys, it is something to be on this journey.”

Everyone on the team knows things will not quite be the same this year without fans present at Churchill Downs, especially the walkover from the backside to the Derby paddock. For Harbut, especially, the excitement and pride will still be hard to contain. The young bloodstock agent with a distinctly international clientele has already purchased 16 Grade 1 winners in his career, including his very first buy, Tell A Kelly, but having a horse in the Kentucky Derby is the absolute pinnacle.

“I work in the business, but first and foremost I'm a fan of the game,” Harbut said. “Every person who gets involved in racing, they want to be in the Derby. This game is a lot of highs and lot of lows, and we're still a week out and a lot of things can happen in that week.”

The only certainty about Saturday afternoon is that Harbut will be representing his African American and horse racing heritages with pride.

“I hope what it does is allow other African Americans to think about getting involved in the business and realizing they can participate, realizing there is room for them, and hopefully research more and understand that the history starts and begins with us in horse racing, particularly with the Kentucky Derby,” Harbut told Alicia Wincze-Hughes. (

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