Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Derby Roses For ‘Miss Syl’

Horse racing has long been an integral part of daily life for the neighborhoods near Churchill Downs. Homes full of large, close-knit families surrounded one another, and it seemed everyone knew at least a few people who worked at the track, or later, a few others who owned a couple racehorses. Any time someone got a hot tip on a horse one afternoon, the news spreads like wildfire as the die-hard racing fans gather would beneath the grandstand in an area they called the “snake pit.”

There was camaraderie, a fair bit of rivalry, stories about wagers won (and more stories about those almost won), and if one of the owners’ horses was racing that day, there’d be the chance to stand in the paddock and hopefully then in the winner’s circle. It was a community beyond that of the racetrack itself, and it had been that way since before 84-year-old Sylvia Arnett can remember.

So, even though spectators were not allowed at this year’s Kentucky Derby, the long-time racing fan found a way to use pen and paper to share that community connection with one of the contenders. Much to Arnett’s surprise, her sentiment was returned a thousand-fold with a bouquet of red roses even more precious than those on the winner’s garland.

Arnett grew up in a house just two blocks from Churchill, which her family still owns today. The youngest of 11 children, she has been watching (and wagering) on races since her earliest Derby day, when Arnett remembers parking cars for a quarter and racing over to the track to get someone to place a bet for her (at six years old, she was too young to do it herself).

Arnett even owned a few racehorses with her late husband, which she recalls was quite a feat for an African-American in the early 1970s, and several members of her family are still involved in the racing business.

For the past 30 years, however, “Miss Syl” has served her community as the owner and operator of the popular Syl’s Lounge in West Louisville.

“It’s like a ‘Cheers’ bar, everybody knows everyone, and it’s like the 40 and over crowd,” Arnett explained. “They come religiously, and I had gone down to just three days a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and they’d stay late into the night singing and listening to music.”

The bar has drawn figures like champion boxer Muhammad Ali, former Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, the first prominent civil rights activist to become chief executive of a major American city, and multiple Grammy Award-winning musical group The 5th Dimension, among many others.

It is simultaneously the kind of place where the community would gather to unwind and where they would go for important local events, including the Kentucky Derby. “Miss Syl” runs it all with the kind of old-school charm and iron wit that makes you feel immediately like part of the family.

This year has been an exception. The coronavirus pandemic has forced the bar to stay shut down since March, so Arnett has found herself with a lot of free time on her hands.

No matter. Tracing back to her roots, she followed this year’s delayed Kentucky Derby with even more zealous scrutiny than usual and found herself especially touched by the story of trainer Tommy Drury and his first Derby contender, Art Collector.

“I saw this article in the local newspaper, and it mentioned that he had been working with the horses since he was 18 years of age,” said Arnett. “So, I thought, ‘Wow, all that hard work has paid off and he finally made it to the big one. I’m gonna write him a letter and congratulate him.’

“It was something about him, he just worked hard for it and I know what that feels like.”

Her hand-written letter, the first Arnett had ever written to a Derby hopeful, took a slightly convoluted journey across town to get to Drury’s barn at Churchill Downs.

As it turns out, Art Collector’s groom Jerry Dixon was staying in the same hotel at which Arnett’s son is employed. Dixon, a lifetime racetracker, happened to mention to Arnett’s son that the colt was going to win the Ellis Park Derby, and after that, hopefully the Kentucky Derby.

“We bet the Ellis Park Derby, bet it good, and won good,” Arnett said, smiling big. “We was ready for the Kentucky Derby, we were gonna put money on the Kentucky Derby!”

Arnett gave the letter to her son, her son gave it to Dixon, and Dixon finally dropped it off at Drury’s office at the track.

Unfortunately, Art Collector’s eleventh-hour scratch from the Run for the Roses ended the dream prematurely. Though she couldn’t have known about the scratch when she penned her letter, Arnett had made the fortuitous decision to include the story of her brother-in-law and his horse that almost ran in the Derby; it became a balm for Drury’s disappointment in more ways than one.

Jacob Bachelor was an African-American Thoroughbred trainer by passion, but with a wife and five kids, he worked a day job at International Harvester in Louisville. In 1975, he had a horse named Naughty Jake who won the Spiral Stakes at what was then Latonia (now Turfway Park), and then ran third in the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs.

Arnett, the youngest of 11 children, remembers that most of her family, along with the rest of the neighborhood, wanted Bachelor to enter the horse in the Kentucky Derby, but he didn’t have the money for the nomination and entry fees.

“If we had gone around the neighborhood and taken up a collection, I think we would have come close to getting whatever he needed to get that horse in the race, because it was such an exception and such an opportunity for an African-American,” Arnett said. “I just think my brother-in-law should have taken the chance and run that horse. Just think, he would have been the owner and trainer. That would have been something.”

Bachelor had other successes, like winning the 1972 Debutante at Churchill with the filly “Sylva Mill,” named after Arnett and her sister, Mildred. That day, nearly the entire neighborhood gathered in the winner’s circle to celebrate the win; it felt like the filly belonged to all of them.

The horses Arnett and her husband owned were never major stakes contenders, but she clearly remembers the feeling of walking into the paddock on race day.

“You would hear people say, ‘Those African American people over there, they own that horse!’” Arnett said, closing her eyes and reliving the moment. “Man, we thought we were celebrities. We may not have had much, but those were big days.”

The neighborhood has changed over the ensuing years. Most of the big manufacturing companies have shuttered their doors, homes are now boarded up and in disrepair, and the community has lost a lot of the institutions that used to make it unique. Civil rights movements have grabbed hold of west Louisville, and the entire country, once again.

Nonetheless, Syl’s Lounge has persevered.

“Those of us who remember west Louisville when there were movie theaters, restaurants and more strong, stable families” view Syl’s as “a throwback to what we used to have,” Rev. Kevin Cosby told the Louisville Magazine in 2018. “And I think maybe psychologically people see in her institution the hope of what is yet possible.”

Arnett has continued to carry out her role as a pillar of her community, even without the physical space of the bar. She calls the regular patrons on a weekly basis, just checking in, and looks forward to a time they can be together in person once again.

When Drury read Arnett’s letter, the community sentiment really hit home. He was reminded just how lucky he was to have the horse and the ownership to make it as far as they had, and that Art Collector would go on to fight another day.

Drury, his teenage daughter Emma and her friend Molly Andrews, decided to take a trip to the florist. They picked out a bouquet of red “Derby” roses for Arnett, and sent them over to the extraordinary woman who’d been able to share both Drury’s excitement and his disappointment, without ever having met in person.

“I couldn’t have been more happy had it been the whole garland of roses,” Arnett said, a sparkle in her eye as she showed off a photograph of her with her bouquet just after it arrived. “As for Mr. Drury, I’m going to write him another letter and tell him it’s okay he had to scratch, we’ll just have to settle for Black-Eyed Susans on Preakness day!”

The post Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Derby Roses For ‘Miss Syl’ appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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