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Louisville restaurant honors history of Kentucky Black jockeys

"I'm very passionate about where these guys and what the guys did at the time that they did it because some of these guys came out of slavery."

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Managers of a downtown Louisville restaurant have rebranded their business to honor some of the original members of the Kentucky Derby.

African American jockeys have played an integral role in the history of thoroughbred racing and rode horses in the first derbies until they were pushed out of the sport. The Black Jockeys Lounge is giving them long-overdue recognition.

"I'm very passionate about where these guys and what the guys did at the time that they did it because some of these guys came out of slavery," general manager of The Black Jockeys Lounge, Calvin Davis said. 

About a dozen Black jockeys decorate the walls of the restaurant that used to be called Encore on Fourth located across Louisville Palace Theatre. Dining at the rebranded space means enjoying a meal while taking a trip through history. 

"Isaac Burns Murphy is a three-time Kentucky Derby winner," Davis said while describing some of the jockeys on display. "Isaac still holds the highest percentage of any jockeys still today...when Jim Crow swept through Kentucky, he realized 'as I win a race I open a door for my people.'"

The jockeys, who are often forgotten, have dominated horse racing at a time when it was America's most popular sport.

RELATED: The forgotten Black jockeys of the Kentucky Derby

"These guys [on display] are all Kentucky Derby winning jockeys and played a major role in Churchill Downs becoming what it is today," Davis said. 

One of the hidden figures on the wall is Oliver Lewis who was the first-ever jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. 

"Not a lot of folks know that," Davis said. "In that first running of the Kentucky Derby there were 15 jockeys – 13 of those jockeys were Black and Oliver won that race."

The restaurant features menu items inspired by what the jockeys themselves may have ordered. 

"A humbling experience to be a part of this and to be a part of this amazing history," Kevin Nelson said who loved the concept so much that he accepted the executive chef position. 

"So this is my salute to the Black jockeys," Nelson said. "This isn't just about Black history this is about our history; about American history and about sports history."

Contact reporter Senait Gebregiorgis at SGebregior@whas11.com and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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