Louisville Story Program to publish new book about Churchill Downs’ backside and South End neighborhoods

Churchill Downs Backside workers

Backside workers near the back door of the tack room at Churchill Downs | Courtesy of Clark Otte

Once a year, Louisville celebrates horse racing in grand style. We enjoy the pageantry, the parties and especially the winnings.

But how much attention do we give to those who make it work behind the scenes? The backside of Churchill Downs is its own little micro-community, and Louisville Story Program aims to publish a book that highlights the lives of those who make a living there. 

Better Lucky Than Good: Tall Tales and Straight Talk from the Backside of the Track” is now in the Kickstarter phase to raise money for publishing. Once the initial $17,000 is raised, the book will be available in bookstores and on the Louisville Story Program website. 

Joe Manning

Joe Manning

Joe Manning, who spearheaded the project, said he spent about three years interviewing the community that makes up the backside — everyone from hot walkers, exercise riders, trainers, jockeys and a former track superintendent to a gate crew member, a pony person, a horticulturist, a silks seamstress and the proprietor of the legendary Wagner’s Pharmacy.

“Our mission at Louisville Story Program is to just sort of reach out to folks in the community we don’t hear from often enough and present our whole city with the opportunity to know their neighbors with a little bit more clarity,” Manning told Insider. “And there’s just nothing in the city of Louisville that is more iconic than Churchill Downs.” 

Manning didn’t just visit the backside and begin interviewing. He spent the first year hanging out and getting to know the place and its people before he started using a recorder. 

After the interviews were conducted, Manning and other staff “sort of extract the interviewer out of the transcript, and what that leaves you with is a first-person narrative, which I edit down into a story.” Louisville Story Program calls it a “collaborative ethnography.” 

“We work with them so that they’re not just sort of OK with the chapter but are enthusiastic about the story they are sharing with the world,” Manning said.

About 40 people were interviewed and about 30 made it into the book. 

"Better Lucky Than Good"

“Better Lucky Than Good” is in its Kickstarter phase and will be available soon.

One story Manning highlighted is about Sylvia Arnett, owner of Syl’s Lounge. She grew up in a South End neighborhood called The Hill and always loved betting horses. She dreamed of one day owning a racehorse, and she did.

In the promotional video, she said, “They’re looking at you like, ‘That’s an African-American female and she owns that horse?’” 

Another character in the book is Neil Huffman (not the car dealer). The 84-year-old was a trainer and farm manager and now lives in the same house he was born in, near the track. He goes back every day to take care of the cats on the backside, and people come to visit and chat.

“He’s one of the keepers of the flame, and he is a storyteller the likes of which I have never known in my life,” said Manning. “I could listen to the guy — and have listened to him — for hours and hours. You’ll notice the title of the book says ‘Tall Tales and Straight Talk,’ and there are some tall tales in this book, and some really good ones.

“(Listening to Huffman), it’s like somebody opened up a Tom Waits record and just walked out of the middle of it. He kind of comes from a different time, and it’s a fantastic tour guide to South Louisville of the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. It’s just fantastic.”

Manning is excited to see his years of hard work come to fruition, but he’s more excited to see the South End get its due. 

“I think what was commonly understood on the backside is that it is all of these people — from the hot walker to the shedrow foreman and to the outrider — are required to make a horse race happen,” Manning said. “And that all of those people are our neighbors and members of our community. We celebrate their work very predictably at one time of the year. But they are neighbors all year long.”

The Kickstarter campaign so far has raised about $11,000 and only needs $6,000 more by July 26. Visitors to the site can see the promotional video about the book and donate to the project or preorder the book for $25. A public launch party will be on Nov. 4 at the Kentucky Derby Museum.