‘Better Lucky than Good’ a Captivating Inside Look at Churchill Downs, Louisville

Pop Culture
“Better Lucky Than Good,” above left, is a book filled with tales from the backside at Churchill Downs and from lifelong Louisville residents like Neil Huffman, above right. (Joe Manning photo/Kertis Creative photo)

The book “Better Lucky Than Good: Tall Tales and Straight Talk from the Backside of the Track” is the stunning result of a three-year project taken on by the Louisville Story Project. They like to partner with people whose voices are often unheard. It’s brilliant! They began on the backside of Churchill Downs in October 2016 spending time with the authors which led to the book launch in December 2019. Skillfully edited by Joe Manning, 32 authors tell their life stories. Thirty-two characters. Thirty-two keepers of Kentucky’s rich history. Their words weave a tapestry around Churchill Downs and the South Side neighborhood. It’s silky rich, knotty, bumpy, feisty, and eloquent.

Neil Huffman is a treasure trove of local history. When he starts talking, the pages of the book fly by. You want more. He talks about his childhood, his grandfather, his uncles, and bookies. He brings the characters around him back to life. You feel his longing for the old days and his pride for surviving the hard times. He is now retired and returns to the backside to feed some of barn cats. He is the kind of guy who makes you want to pull up a bale of hay, sit down, and just listen as he tells the tales of long ago. It’s perfection.

Lee Lockwood (Julie June Stewart photo)

With each chapter, I found myself diving deeper into the history of the neighborhood. I pulled up Google maps and looked for each address or landmark mentioned. I was really taken with the stories that people used to ride their horses on Southern Parkway. Huffman said: “The big ride was the Friday night moonlight ride. Just out the parkway and around the park and back home. There was over 100 of us. It was all over and done by 12 or 1 a.m. We’d all come in from South Louisville and meet where the AutoZone is now … Right across New Cut Road, they built a big hitching post. It was 50-feet long; you could hook up 30 or 40 horses. So, we’d all ride up there, tie our horses up, and walk over to Parkside and get a beer or whatever.”

Outrider Lee Lockwood is one of the folks who keeps order on the track during the races. His story is fascinating and explains how dangerous and complicated an outrider’s job is when they are trying to catch a loose horse on the track. He is modest. “I still don’t think my story is anything book-worthy, but Joe [Manning] was great to talk with and seemed truly interested in how I ended up where I was on the track. … I did enjoy learning more about the people that I didn’t know, other than what they did on the track. I liked all the stories but what really stuck out to me was hearing about the neighborhood around the track in the year’s past. I just can’t picture people riding horses down Southern Parkway.”

Lockwood takes you through the complexities of catching a loose Thoroughbred running riderless recklessly down the track. “I like to tell people that outriders are like the lifeguard at a pool.” If they witness someone with poor riding skills or doing something stupid, “we tell them you can’t do that here.  “You need to go to the shallow end. Well, here at Churchill, we don’t have a shallow end.”

Monnie Goetz (Julie June Stewart photo)

As a pony person, Monnie Goetz rides the most recognizable horse at the track. He is often known as “Harley the Magnificent” (AKA Daisy’s Chief Dane) who is the behemoth Appaloosa (American Sugarbush Harlequin Draft) that towers above the Thoroughbreds he escorts on the track. Monnie runs a pony business. She is thrilled about the book. “The stories are wonderful, where everybody got started into the business and how they worked their way up into where they are at. I think it really turned out nice. I was really pleased with it.”  She went to the book launch at the Kentucky Derby Museum and signed autographs for fans. “I never expected it to turn out that big. There were over a hundred people there. I knew most of the people because they all work around the track. I know almost everybody in the book.” 

Monnie has ponied in every Kentucky Derby since 1985. She usually has a dozen ponies who escort 90-100 horses on Derby day. “There’s nothing better than to have the love of horses in your life and sitting next to or being on one of the best horses in the world. What else can you ask for?” 

The beauty of the book is that it not only looks at Churchill Downs past, it offers a glimpse into the future. Merlin Cano Hernandez is 17 years old. She is a hot walker and the youth activities director at the Backside Learning Center as well as a National Honor Society student in high school. Her five brothers work at the track as exercise riders. She has penned the best description of being a hot walker I have ever read. I sent her a congratulatory note and she responded, “Thank you for reading! What can I say? I feel really proud of myself and being the youngest in the book. I have met new people since then that have read my chapter like you. The book launch was the best because I practiced my speaking skills that are not so great in front of a large group. A lot of people clapped and that felt great.” The day after the book launch, Merlin achieved her next goal and became a U.S. citizen.

One fascinating element voiced throughout the entire book is the neighborhoods around Churchill Downs. Back in the day, it seemed that everyone had a horse or two in their backyard. There was a plethora of barns. There were riding academies. Kids could find ways to sneak onto the backside and earn a dollar or two hot walking. You could ride your horse to a local tavern. The neighborhoods were good, clean, and strong. 

Wanda Mitchell-Smith, Kenny Luckett, Neil Huffman, Sophie Goff, and Cristobal Resendiz Trejo (Kertis Creative photo)

In 1947, a decision was made to move commercial aviation from Bowerman Field to Standiford Field (now the Louisville International Airport.)  This marked the death knell of Highland Park. Farms and homes were purchased by the city. You don’t realize how attached you have become to the neighborhood around Churchill Downs until you see the photo essay by Pat McDonogh of the residents of Highland Park. In stark black and white, you share the grief and trauma of the elderly and the families who are being displaced. My heart keeps returning to the photo of an elderly woman who learned she was losing her home from a flyer dropped into her yard.

This is the backbone of the book. Faced with adversity, many of the authors survived and eventually thrived. Leonard “Plummie” Bass (a retired groom and security guard) endured. “Ain’t nothing left of Highland Park. The city bought all them houses and bulldozed them. The airport expansion took the whole neighborhood. They gave me $38,000 to relocate my grandmother’s house … they said, “Take it or leave it.” He now lives near Churchill Downs.

Sylvia Arnett’s mother was shrewd and found house mover to move their home. At 6 years old, Sylvia was placing bets for her mom with a bookie. Matt Bizzell traces his journey to the Churchill Downs greenhouse. Each story resonates. The grit of Greta Kuntzweiler. The sophistication of Sophie Goff. The wisdom of William “Catfish” Smith. The wit and charm of Wanda Mitchell-Smith. The celebration of Eugene Roche Jr., who at 91 years old might have been the oldest licensed horseman in the U.S when he passed away.

The backside and the track will never be the same for anyone reads this book. You will look past the horses and into the eyes of the people around them. The neighborhood sings with history as you drive around. The memories fill the track of those who worked there in the past and those to rise before dawn to work there now.

Cristobal Resendiz Trejo (Kertis Creative photo)

Every year, people make the pilgrimage to Churchill Downs to enjoy world class horse racing. “Better Lucky than Good” pays homage to the people of the backside who make it possible. There wouldn’t be a Kentucky Derby without their hard work and perseverance. Darcy Thompson from Louisville Story Program says, “The 32 authors of this book have dedicated their lives to the industry and their book illustrates the dignity, passion, and humility of backside workers everywhere. We are thrilled by the enthusiastic response to the book by the backside community, and by the Thoroughbred racing community more broadly.”

If you go to the Derby each year or plan to attend for the first time, do yourself a favor and read this book. It’s worth looking at Churchill Downs through the eyes of those who work there. Suddenly, the world of horse racing will expand beyond the grandstands and the winner’s circle. “My Old Kentucky Home” will be much more meaningful as you witness the parade of participants from the backside. They put in all the work to get the horses into the race. It’s time to give a cheer for them!

“Better Lucky Than Good: Tall Tales and Straight Talk from the Backside of the Track!” is available at The Kentucky Derby Museum, Wagner’s Pharmacy,  Carmichael’s Bookstore, Revelry Boutique Gallery, Speed Art Museum, McQuixote Books & Coffee, Luckett’s Tack Shop, and Syl’s Lounge.

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