Churchill Downs officials haven't decided whether they will play the controversial anthem, "My Old Kentucky Home" at the 146th Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
The song, written in 1853 by Stephen Foster, is a Kentucky slave's lament about being sold down the river. For years, people have expressed concerns over the anthem and say Churchill Downs should not play it, especially against a backdrop of racial injustice protests being held across Louisville and the country.
In the song, inspired by the novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a slave is saying goodbye to Kentucky to face abuse and toil in the "land where the sugar canes grow."
A spokesperson for Churchill Downs said Thursday they "don't know" whether they will play the state song, which is traditionally performed in the final minutes leading up to the Run for the Roses.
The track said in a statement Thursday, "we recognize that people in our community and across our nation are hurting right now. The atmosphere of the Kentucky Derby will be different this year as we respond to those calls for change. This will be a Derby unlike any other. As it should be."
With few exceptions, the University of Louisville Cardinal Marching Band has performed "My Old Kentucky Home" every year since 1936. If this were a typical year, the 200-piece band would play the Kentucky state song in front of a crowd of more than 150,000. But there will be no fans in the stands due to the coronavirus pandemic, and nothing about this Kentucky Derby is normal.
Several local protesters told The Courier Journal they want Churchill Downs to cancel the race altogether as a statement against police brutality and the Louisville police officers who fatally shot Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman who was killed at her apartment in March. Protests are continuing Friday, the 100th consecutive day of demonstrations, as well as Saturday.
Amy Acklin, director of the University of Louisville Cardinal Marching Band, said she knows the song is controversial and that "we should be able to engage in thoughtful dialogue about this topic. But let's keep in mind this is the state song, and that conversation needs to be led by the governor's office."
Acklin previously told The Courier Journal that the crowd singing "My Old Kentucky Home" is "powerful."
"At first the crowd sings very softly, but then the sound begins to build and the moment they hit the chorus, 'Weep no more my lady,' tens of thousands of voices all come together, and it is unbelievably powerful," she said.
Some in the horse racing industry also think the tradition of singing of "My Old Kentucky Home" should continue as part of the pageantry of the longest-running sporting event in the United States.
Louisville native and trainer Tommy Drury Jr., whose horse Art Collector unexpectedly scratched from the Kentucky Derby earlier this week, said previously, “That’s the only thing I need in this whole deal, whether it’s on the intercom or however they do it ... I’d still like to hear ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’ That’s one thing I hope they definitely bring to someone’s attention. We need to hear that song during the post parade.”
Steve Buttleman, Churchill Downs' longtime bugler, will perform the national anthem ahead of the 146th Kentucky Derby. NBC Sports will air the race; post time is set for approximately 7 p.m. ET.
Reporer Hayes Gardner contributed to this report. Reach Kirby Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @kirbylouisville
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky Derby officials unsure whether to play 'My Old Kentucky Home'