Winning the Race in Helping Communities Thrive

Apr 30, 2021 | Community, Giving Back

From left, Cathy Shircliff, director of community relations at Churchill Downs, and Tonya Abeln, vice president of communications of Churchill Downs and its foundation president.

When you hear the words Churchill Downs, sleek thoroughbreds, delicate red roses, and a parade of jockeys in brightly colored silks might come to mind. But what Churchill Downs and its charitable foundation mean to Louisville and the state as a whole goes far beyond the first Saturday in May.

“The Churchill Downs Foundation’s mission is to provide support to the thoroughbred racing industry as well as the communities that contribute to the tradition of the Kentucky Derby,” says Tonya Abeln, vice president of communications at Churchill Downs and president of the foundation.

Tonya Abeln, vice president of communications of Churchill Downs and its foundation president, says, “…It really is our responsibility to give back to those who have helped us build this tradition over the past 147 years.”

The equine industry is a big umbrella that includes thoroughbreds once they transition from racing, jockeys who experience injuries, and the education, health, and employment of backside workers. As a result of COVID-19, the Churchill Downs Foundation created the Relief for Equine Industry Needs (R.E.I.N.) Fund, which has helped backside workers in various ways through the pandemic. The foundation was able to provide a direct grant to the Backside Learning Center, which took steps to become a dedicated JCPS community learning hub in the wake of non-traditional instruction (NTI). The R.E.I.N. Fund has also provided rent and grocery donations to backside workers during the pandemic.

New Vocations, a Lexington-based organization that trains retired race horses for second careers, has also benefited from a grant from the Churchill Downs Foundation. Cathy Shircliff, director of community relations at Churchill Downs, says New Vocations saw an uptick in horses needing to be rehomed due to COVID-19, so a R.E.I.N. grant was able to cover some of the hay expenses.

Cathy Shircliff, director of community relations at Churchill Downs, says the foundation’s investment in the Legacy Equine Academy “speaks to my horse-girl heart.”

The corporate arm of Churchill Downs has pursued plenty of philanthropic endeavors to make Louisville, and Kentucky as a whole, a better place to live. “We have often said that the Kentucky Derby is not ours; we get the great honor of hosting it year after year, but it actually belongs to the community, the city of Louisville, and the people of Kentucky. With that philosophy in mind, it really is our responsibility to give back to those who have helped us build this tradition over the past 147 years,” Tonya says.

The company recently announced a $20,000 donation to the Legacy Equine Academy, whose goal is to help racially diverse youth become interested in the equine industry. “This speaks to my horse-girl heart,” Cathy says. “As we’re focused on telling the story of the history of Black horsemen, it made sense to invest in the future of the Black horsemen.”

New Directions Housing Corporation, a local nonprofit, has received $75,000 from Churchill Downs since 2020 to help those ages 60 and older — who have a verified disability and make less than 50 percent of the Area Median Income — fix up their homes as part of the Repair Affair program. In February 2021, when snow and ice fell across Louisville, one beneficiary was an 81-year-old woman in the Churchill Downs neighborhood whose heat had gone out.

Churchill Downs has always fostered relationships with many nonprofit organizations in the city, including Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Kentuckiana, Family Scholar House, and Maryhurst, but it is working to deepen those connections. Churchill Downs wants to really invest in programming with their human capital. “We’ll have at least 15 mentors from Churchill Downs who will work with high school students [in Big Brothers/Big Sisters’ School-to-Work program],” Cathy says. Another idea in the works is for Churchill Downs staff to have “speed networking” with participants at Family Scholar House. Churchill Downs is partnering closely with Maryhurst to open help centers in the South End of Louisville.

P.S. Merlin Cano has firsthand knowledge of the benefits of the Backside Learning Center at Churchill Downs. Read her story.

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