Kentucky Derby: ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ will be played before race with moment of silence

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Musical tradition will continue before Saturday’s Run for the Roses.

For the 100th time since 1921, as horses parade to the post, the song, “My Old Kentucky Home” will be played before the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs said in a statement Friday.

Unlike other years, however, there will be a moment of silence before Kentucky’s official state song is played and the ceremony will be modified, WDRB reported.

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“After careful consideration, My Old Kentucky Home will be played this year prior to the @KentuckyDerby; however, the 100-year tradition of singing the state song of Kentucky has been thoughtfully and appropriately modified and will be preceded by a moment of silence and reflection,” Churchill Downs tweeted.

Officials did not explain how the ceremony would be modified, WLKY reported.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, there will be no fans in the stands at Churchill Downs to sing along, this year. The Derby, normally the first jewel of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown for 3-year-olds, is the second major racing event this year. The Belmont Stakes, usually the final Triple Crown race, was run June 20 and was won by favored Tiz the Law.

The Preakness, which has traditionally been the middle event among the Triple Crown races, will be held Oct. 3 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

The song, written by Stephen Foster, has been criticized in the past for its implied overtones about slavery, WLKY reported.

The Derby itself has come under criticism for proceeding despite the racial unrest in the state, ignited by the shooting death of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor by members of the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department on March 13. Protesters have clashed with police in Louisville since Taylor’s death.

“We know there are some who disagree with our decision to run the Kentucky Derby this year,” Churchill Downs officials said in a statement. “We respect that point of view but made our decision in the belief that traditions can remind us of what binds us together as Americans, even as we seek to acknowledge and repair the terrible pain that rends us apart.

Our sport shares a disconcerting history that led to the exclusion of Black jockey participation through the years. The legacy of the Kentucky Derby begins with the incredible success of Black jockeys,” the statement continued. “We feel it is imperative to acknowledge the painful truths that led to their exclusion. Churchill Downs strongly believes in preserving and sharing the stories of the Black jockeys who are a critical part of this tradition. This is not a new commitment, but we continue to seek ways to share these stories and honor these athletes.”

The state song was originally titled “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight,” and was written by Foster in the 1850s as an anti-slavery song, according to Smithsonian Magazine. The song was inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Foster’s original working title was “Poor Uncle Tom, Goodnight,” according to Smithsonian.

In “My Bondage and My Freedom,” written by abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, wrote that the song “awakens sympathies for the slave, in which antislavery principles take root, grow, and flourish.”

Paul Robeson, a Black singer, Shakespearean actor and 20th-century political activist, sang a rendition of the tune with most of the original lyrics -- including a racial slur that would not be used today -- that bolsters the meaning of Foster’s composition, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

The state of Kentucky used the song to promote tourism, distributing 10,000 copies of sheet music at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, the magazine reported. The song has been performed by many performers; interestingly, Al Jolson, who performed in blackface, substituted the word “children” for the racial slur, according to Smithsonian.

“Our goal has always been that the Kentucky Derby and the way it is observed throughout the city should be inclusive of the entire Louisville community,” Churchill Downs said in its statement. “However, we hear the calls to do more and we have challenged ourselves to do so.”