Newspaper coverage of Hispanic immigrants in Kentucky’s horse industry

Local journalism about Kentucky’s equine industry provides incomplete coverage of the vital role that Hispanic workers play, showing that the industry both depends on and supports workers while failing to give them a voice.

Mariela R., Spring 2023

For over a century, Kentucky has been considered the horse capital of the world. Not only is the horse industry a representation of our state’s history and culture, but it also contributes significantly to the state’s economic output, as shown in a 2013 study by the University of Kentucky which found that the state’s “equine industry had a total economic impact of almost $3 billion and generated 40,665 jobs” (Wiemers). Hispanic and Latino workers are essential to this success. The Guardian, in 2021, reported that “Backside workers who make the track and its crown jewel race – the Kentucky Derby – run, about 70-80% are estimated to be Latino immigrants” (Wood). However, whether because of the pageantry of these events,  or the lack of media coverage on the matter, public perception often tends to overlook the contribution of Hispanic workers in the horse and racing industry, as media reports often fail to recognize the hard work that goes on behind the scenes, or better said, the “backside”.

This bibliography intends to enhance visibility for Hispanic “backside” workers, who work diligently for months leading up to and during these events to make them happen by presenting journalism from Kentucky newspapers that have reported on the presence and role of Hispanic workers in this industry. These articles show that the equine breeding and race industry in Kentucky both depend on, and support immigrant Hispanic workers. Through articles dating back to the 1990s, this list of references demonstrates the essential involvement of horse farm owners, breeders, and racing organizations in advocating for workers and helping migrant backside workers gain legal status to work on their farms, raising donations to support social and educational programs, and sharing some experiences of workers in their communities. However, while the articles presented here offer a glimpse of history and connection between Kentucky’s Hispanic community and the horse industry, they do not offer a comprehensive view of the importance of Hispanic workers in the industry. The available media coverage is limited, with only 50 articles found in over 30 years, mostly focused on how the industry advocates and supports immigrant workers. The voices of workers themselves are often absent from this coverage. Given the industry’s support for its workers, it is important for the media to provide a more detailed and inclusive representation of their experiences and contributions.


YearAuthorFull citationShort description
1996Burdette, DickBurdette, Dick. “Flavors of Mexico in the B Lexington Herald-Leader, 1996, B1.This article describes a new Mexican grocery store opening in Versailles, Kentucky in 1996 due to the increase in Hispanic population, which the article mentions is attributable to the Horse Industry. A quote from a horse groomer says “I’m just a little (horse farm) groom, and here, I can make three times what a teacher in Mexico makes.”
1998Honeycutt Spears, ValerieHoneycutt Spears, Valerie. “INS Office proposed for Lexington.” Lexington Herald-Leader, 24 September 1998, B1.The Kentucky thoroughbred association seeks help from officials for Lexington to open an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) office, as they think it would benefit the Hispanic horse-farm workers to maintain their legal status.
1998Patton, JanetPatton, Janet. “Hispanic group asks burley co-op for help.” Lexington Herald-Leader, July 28 1998, p. B5President of Lexington Hispanic Association asks Burley Tobacco Growers Board for a donation of $53,000 to address the issues of their migrant workers, and plans on approaching other industries that utilize the hispanic populations most, such as the horse industry.
1998Taylor, Louise Taylor, Louise. “Migrant workers issues also concern owners of area’s horse farms.” Lexington Herald-Leader, 31 May 1998, p. A14.This article discusses that farms rely on the labor of illegal immigrants because Americans don’t want these jobs. “They make good horse people”.
1999Mulvihill, Geoff. Mulvihill, Geoff. “Groups join to fund Hispanic Services.” Lexington Herald-Leader, 23 July 1999, B1.Multiple groups unite to fund services of Lexington’s Spanish-speaking population, including the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association.
1999Herald-Leader StaffStaff Report, Herald Leader. “Keeneland distributes $636,300 to charities, Bluegrass communities.” Lexington Herald-Leader, 22 December 1999, p. 22Keeneland Association makes a donation to the The Catholic Diocese Hispanic Outreach Program to continue services for the Hispanic Community.
2000Oppenheimer, LauraOppenheimer, Laura. “Growing to meet a need – Hispanic Association to have a casa of its own.” Lexington Herald-Leader, 28 July 2000, p. B1.Lexington Hispanic Association gets an official home/office. The Keeneland Association is a donor to the Lexington Hispanic Association.
2001Patton, JanetPatton, Janet. “Hispanic advocates criticize INS fear said to have kept immigrants illegal.” Lexington Herald-Leader, 3 May 2001, p. C1.This article describes the threat of INS to horse farm workers and how they fear to apply for these jobs.
2002Patton, Janet Patton, Janet. “Even a possible win pays – War Emblem isn’t a favorite of purists’ chance of Triple Crown Triumph in a major boon for racing.” Lexington Herald-Leader, 8 June 2002, p. A1.This article talks about the horse industry trying to reach more TV time and advertising. They mention a Spanish-only news conference held by a Mexican jockey to attract more Hispanic viewers.
2002Isaacs, BarbaraIsaacs, Barbara “Church N’ Turf – Sunday services are popular, and not  just with employees.” Lexington Herald-Leader, 21 October 2002, B1.This article focuses on the trackside church services at Keeneland that offers services in English and Spanish on Thursdays.
2003Lockwood, FrankLockwood, Frank. “My new Kentucky home – Latino workers create a community at Churchill.” Lexington Herald-Leader, 30 April 2003, A1.This article describes the experiences of multiple Hispanic immigrant Churchill workers who have created a community through the years as they share similar experiences.
2003Rees, Jennie Rees, Jennie. “Headline: Bejarano has ridden a long way from Peru.” Louisville Courier Journal, 03 Sep 2003.Follows the story of Peruvian horse rider, Rafael Bejarano, as he becomes Kentucky’s “hottest rider”.
2003Tompkins, Wayne Tompkins, Wayne. “Headline: Una vida nueva; A new life: Hispanics changing area profile.” Louisville Courier Journal, 02 Mar 2003.Article that highlights the impact of the rising Hispanic population in Kentucky and Southern Indiana, and how it revitalizes old neighborhoods and the imact its had in the economy.
2003Patton, Janet Patton, Janet. “Hands-on Hispanics – Immigrants’ pay seem to be rising as they fill needed wages.” Lexington Herald-Leader 24 March 2003, p. C1.This article covers the numbers. of Hispanic workers working in Kentucky horse farms in 2003
2004Green, MarcusGreen, Marcus. “Hispanic workers at Churchill learn English at new center.” Louisville Courier Journal, 27 June 2004.Article about the language barriers that the Hispanic workers encounter at Churchill Downs and ways in which they are being helped to learn the language, such as a nonprofit language school that opened on the Backside of the tracks.
2004Olsen, Andy Olsen, Andy. “Protecting their own.” The Lane Report, 1 September 2004, 32Follows the journey of a new backside worker at Churchill Downs and highlights the education at their Learning Center. 
2004Hill, BobHill, Bob. “New classes are favorites at the track.” Louisville Courier Journal, 30 November 2004.Article about the Learning Center in the backside of Churchill Downs for Hispanic workers that focuses on teaching them English, but also things such as math, finance, computer training, art, etc.
2005Rees, JennieRees, Jennie. “Headline: Countdown to the Kentucky Derby; Hispanic riders on rise.” Louisville Courier Journal, 04 May 2005.Article about the noticeable rise of hispanic jockeys in the horse industry of Kentucky.
2005Smith, VickiSmith, Vicki. “In Appalachian West Virginia and states nearby grow more diverse.” Lexington Herald-Leader, 4 July 2005. p. C1.Rosie Flores, wife of Miami jockey and son move to the Appalachian area and help out the community. “Economic opportunity is starting to translate to diversity”
2005Davis, AlexDavis, Alex. “Headline: A silent Cinco de Mayo.” Louisville Courier Journal, 5 May, 2005.This article talks about the way Backside Workers celebrate Cinco de Mayo by just working, as the Kentucky Derby falls on the same weekend as this Mexican “holiday”. 
2006Honeycutt Spears, ValerieHoneycutt Spears, Valerie. “Immigration: Candidates can’t ignore it – Lexington Politicians Forced to Take Position on the issue.” Lexington Herald-Leader, 3 May 2006, A1.This article highlights a debate among Kentuckian politicians about illegal immigrants. Many of them mention the hit that the economy would take without Hispanic workers, and how vital immigrants are to the horse industry. An incentive from the Urban County Council to help immigrants in the equine industry is mentioned.
2006Mueller, Lee Mueller, Lee. “Coal firm wants to hire Hispanics – Cites declining work ethic of E. KY. Miners.” Lexington Herald-Leader, 7 February 2006, A1.This article highlights the need of coal miners in Eastern Kentucky. A coal company has asked to make it easier to hire Hispanic miners, as they’ve seen the horse industry prosper with the popularity of Hispanic employees in the industry.
2006Dunbar, ElizabethDunbar, Elizabeth. “A new place to find sanctuary – Chapel built for workers at Churchill Downs.” Lexington Herald-Leader, 29 July 2006, F1.New chapel built in Churchill Downs for Hispanic employers so they’re able to “worship in their own language and feel comfortable going to church”
2006Lannen, Steve.Lannen, Steve. “Immigrants head for D.C. to rally for reform – Key Federal Legislation could ease documentation.” Lexington Herald-Leader, 26 March 2006, B1.Hispanic immigrants from Kentucky head to D.C. to rally for their rights. The Kentucky Thoroughbred Association wants for all immigrants to get documented and supports these actions to better access the labor pool. They urge for immigration reform.
2006Wall, Maryjean Wall, Maryjean. “Autumn rides in – horse events signal new season in state.” Lexington Herald-Leader 7 September 2006,  p. D1.This article covers the upcoming (at the time) race season at Keeneland and mentions they have two betting windows where Spanish is spoken to accommodate Hispanics.
2007Warren, BrandyWarren, Brandy. “Statue gets a place at Downs.” Louisville Courier Journal, 01 Oct 2007.This article talks about the placement of a Virgen De Guadalupe statue in the Backside of Churchill Downs, who is a very important figure for most Hispanics both religiously and inspirationally. 
2007Hesser, JustinHesser, Justin. “Health fair held at Downs.” Louisville Courier Journal, 22 May 22 2007.This article talks about a Health Fair held at Churchill Downs for the Backside Workers, where they got free screenings from multiple health-care organizations.
2008Lannen, StevenLannen, Steven. “Housing slump hammering immigrants – Pew Study finds downturn hits Hispanics harder than many others. Lexington Herald-Leader, 5 June 2008, D1.Hispanic workers in the construction industry seem to be struggling to find employment during this year. However, the article mentions that those working on the Kentucky horse farms seem to not be as affected.
2010Larson, SusanLarson, Susan. “Good dream for Kentucky – U.S. should aid immigrant students.” Lexington Herald-Leader, 25 July 2010, D1.This article is written by a Spanish professor from the University of Kentucky rallying for her undocumented students as the DREAM Act. is being considered. Mentions many of these students are attracted to KY because of our job opportunities with the horse industry. 
2010Rose, Sean Rose, Sean. 2010. “Churchill fest celebrates Hispanic heritage: Backside workers.” Louisville Courier Journal, 17 Sep 2010.Article that talks about Backside workers reaching out more to the hispanic community by creating bands that play in clubs around Louisville and that was playing for the first time salsa at the Infield festival that celebrates Latino and Hispanic Heritage in Louisville.
2010Shepherd, AndreaShepherd, Andrea. “Census survey shows declining incomes in Oldham.” Louisville Courier Journal, 14 Dec 2010.Article that highlights the diversity of Oldham County in Kentucky through a Census. It’s mentioned that their Hispanic population has risen due to this Country being close to Louisville and its horse farms.
2010Cengel, KatyaCengel, Katya. “Churchill Downs workers get their kicks at soccer program.” Louisville Courier Journal, 14 Sep 2010.This article talks about the hobby of many of the backside workers, football and soccer. They play for fun most Sunday evenings in the fields of Churchill Downs.
2011Downs, JereDowns, Jere. “Employers say immigrants fill needed Louisville jobs even in tough economy.” Louisville Courier Journal, 12 Feb 2011.Article that highlights the importance of hispanic workers in agriculture and the horse industry. Farm owners are conflicted because they don’t want to hire “illegals”, but at the time they hadn’t had a caucasian or african american person applied to a position in over 8 years.
2011Ungar, Laura Ungar, Laura. “Racing industry’s poorest receive care: Free clinic aids.” Louisville Courier Journal, 07 May 2011.Article that highlights the Kentucky Racing Health Services Center that offers affordable health services for backside workers. 
2011Frassica, MattFrassica, Matt. “Hooked – Echoes of his Mexican past.” Louisville Courier Journal, 3 May 2011.Article about the relevance of Horse Racing in Mexico in relation to the Kentucky Derby, as the author showcases the backside workers’ interest in the races by mentioning they’ve moved to the tracksides to place bets.
2012Steitzer, Stephanie Steitzer, Stephenie. “Senator David Williams unveils immigration reform bill.” Louisville Courier Journal, 29 Dec 2010.This article highlights the relevancy of immigrant workers to the state of Kentucky as Senator David Williams proposes a bill that wouldn’t allow illegal workers to seek employment anymore. Tobacco and Horse industries would be compromised.
2013Mikulak, RonMikulak, Ron. “Derby fare, latino style.” Louisville Courier Journal, 1 May 2013.Article about the “backside” food service at Churchill Downs and the integration of Latino ethnic food for the Latino workers.
2013Courier Journal“Q&A: ANDRE G. STOCK; He’s Learning the horse business in barns, class.” Louisville Courier Journal, 01 Sep 2013.Article about the first recipient of the “John Velazquez Scholarship”, awarded to a student of Hispanic heritage who wants to work in the thoroughbred industry. Andre G. Stock (recipient) works at Churchill Downs and takes classes at UofL.
2013Ruiz, BenRuiz, Ben. “Readers forum: Proud of Mexican heritage, American citizenship.” Louisville Courier Journal, 01 May 2013.Personal story about what Cinco de Mayo means to the author of the article as the Kentucky Derby gets ready to celebrate the holiday for the first time in history at 4th Street Live.
2016Beam, AmandaBeam, Amanda. “Backside labor has Latin flavor.” Louisville Courier Journal, 8 May 2016.Article that focuses on the women working on the “backside” of the horse industry, this article follows the story of a Guatemalan woman named Martha, who’s worked at Churchill Downs for 8 years (at the time).
2016Courier JournalThe Courier Journal. “24 hours at Churchill Downs.” Louisville Courier Journal, 7 May 2016.24 hours at Churchill Downs highlights some of the Hispanic aspects and workers of the Backside.
2016Eblen, TomEblen, Tom. “Commentary: Will Trump’s immigration policies cause labor shortage in Kentucky’s horse racing industry?” Lexington Herald-Leader 11 December 2016, 1C.The author wonders what Trump’s presidency could cause to Kentucky’s thoroughbred industry as he admits that the state’s horse industry would be impossible without the immigrants he called criminals and rapists during his campaign.
2017Frakes, JasonFrakes, Jason. “Gunnevera trainer kidnapped twice, now on big stage: Venezuelan’s road to Kentucky Derby a little more harrowing than most.” Louisville Courier Journal, 1 May 2017.Highlights the story of Venezuelan horse trainer who immigrated to Kentucky after being kidnapped twice in his home country. Now on the “big stage”
2017Courier Journal“Thoroughbreds need more manpower: New visa limits create looming labor shortage in horse racing.” Louisville Courier Journal, 13 February 2017.This article mentions the shortage of work visas in the previous years and how it is affecting the horse industry in Kentucky. 
2019Courier Journal“The heart of Churchill Downs: This secluded backside restaurant may be the best view of the track.” Louisville Courier Journal, 28 April 2019.Another article that talks about the Backside Kitchen at Churchill Downs that is mainly visited by backside workers and that counts with a Hispanic menu for the employees. 
2019Kenning, ChrisKenning, Chris. “‘The cradle of the best jockeys in the world’ – Panama hosts a storied academy for top riders.” Louisville Courier Journal, 29 April 2019.Article about the high-level riding skills of Panamanian horse jockeys in the industry, “the best jockeys in the world”.
2020Eadens, SavannahEadens, Savannah. “Backside learning center: How this group stepped up when Churchill downs backside workers had no income.” Louisville Courier Journal, 4 Sep 2020.This article highlights the help of the Backside Learning Center at Churchill Downs during the pandemic, as it shifted into a disaster relief agency to help its backside workers, as the racetracks shut down.
2020Kenning, ChrisKenning, Chris. “Virus adds to issues faced by undocumented immigrants.” Louisville Courier Journal, 4 Apr 2020.Article that focuses on the issues that the pandemic added onto the difficult lives of undocumented immigrants focusing on Derby backside workers, but also hispanic Kentuckians in general.

Additional sources cited in the introduction

Wiemers, Holly. “Kentucky’s Equine Industry Has $3 Billion Economic Impact.” UK Equine Programs, University of Kentucky, September 2013.

Wood, Josh. “The Latino Immigrants Who Make the Kentucky Derby Tick.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 1 May 2021.