Larry Demeritte Is The First Black Trainer At The Kentucky Derby In 35 Years

Larry Demeritte has trained horses for most of his life, but on May 4, he will make history as the first Caribbean American to participate in the Kentucky Derby and the third Black trainer in the modern era. The Kentucky Derby used to be permeated with Black riders, groomers and trainers, Black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, but since 1951, there have only been three Black horse trainers. 

As NPR reports, Demeritte is hopeful that though the Derby has effectively been shuttered to Black folks through Jim Crow segregation, that the sport can create more inclusion. As he told NPR, he believes part of the problem is financial: “We need to sell our sport better than we do… We need to form more syndicates because it’s getting pretty costly now to own a racehorse. It’s like any other sport… car racing and all of them, they all have syndicates…so [many] sponsors. I feel like that’s what we have to do to let the middle class know in America that it’s not a sport of kings. Anyone can play it, and the reward is so great when you have success in it.”

The 74-year-old Demeritte, who has been diagnosed with cancer and a rare heart disease, is not a man who gives up easily and as Dana O’Neil’s profile of him for The Athletic establishes, is a man possessed of boundless hope and optimism, even if his cancer treatments are painful. He is also aware that being a Black trainer at the Derby carries a tremendous opportunity, as he told The Athletic, “I always say, if I could be linked with the negative side of my race, why don’t I want to link somebody with the positive side? It’s not about me. It’s about bringing everyone of my race with me, so they could feel proud.”

Demeritte also has taken on a Black assistant trainer, Donte Lowery, whom he met at Lexington’s Thoroughbred Training Center and hired in 2015. Lowery, Demeritte indicated to the outlet, is a big reason why he wants the doors of horse racing to open up to everyone who wants to come in. “That’s why I do what I do,” Demeritte said. “I don’t want Donte or my other (assistants) at the barn to have to wait this long to go to the Derby as a trainer.” Demeritte has also been blessed with the gift to evaluate horses, with a penchant for turning horses bought for affordable sums into hundredfold returns on investment. 

“I always say, ‘I have Champagne tastes on a beer budget,’ so I buy good horses cheap, but that doesn’t mean I buy cheap horses,” Demeritte told The Athletic. “I can’t afford the horses that have the papers, so I try to buy the horse that can make the paper.”

Lowery told WKLY that his boss’s positive disposition makes it easier to work with him, even as Demeritte is fighting his body, “For myself, to watch him go through the things, it’s kind of hard, but at the same time his spirits are up,” Demeritte’s assistant trainer, Donte Lowery, said. “He’s always in a happy mood or tries to be all the time, which makes everyone else in the barn smile and it keeps him up.”

Demeritte, for his part, remains appreciative of the journey, telling the outlet, “Some days my boys have to give me a ride back home, I’m so sick,” he said. “But I come, because what’s the use staying at home feeling sorry for yourself when the horse is going to bring a smile to your face?” Demeritte continued, “I believe in my faith, and I believe in destiny. I always tell my friends — I lose a lot of friends to cancer — and I said, ‘If God is not through with you yet, you will still be here.’”

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