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Long Islander joins entrepreneurs of color in horse-racing syndicate

Keith Little, who recently joined other entrepreneurs of

Belmont Park is abuzz. Not with the pounding of hoofs, but the growls and snorts of backhoes and bulldozers. The massive project that is UBS Arena, the Islanders’ new home, set to open later this month, has transformed the park into a construction site. A forest of cranes looms over Hempstead Turnpike as yellow-vested workers hurry to and fro.

But on this clear, sunny afternoon in early November — a day no races were being run — the area just outside the track, known officially as the saddling paddock, is an oasis of bucolic calm. On race days at Belmont, the paddocks, which sit in the shadow of a huge Japanese white pine, are a Red Carpet of sorts for horses. Here, as they take a ceremonial lap around a short oval, the thoroughbreds can be admired by fans as well as by owners and breeders before they head through a ramp and on to the track.

At the center of the paddock is a statue of the most famous horse to ever clippety-clop its way through Belmont: Secretariat, who on June 9, 1973, won the Belmont Stakes, becoming — by virtue of first-place finishes earlier that season at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness — the first Triple Crown winner in the previous 25 years.

Standing near the statue, which was erected the following year, Keith Little smiles. He remembers that race well.

"Secretariat captivated the country," says Little, 65, who watched it on TV as a 17-year-old in New Cassel. "It was a big deal at the time."

Anyone who was living on Long Island in 1973 can attest to that. But few can say that Secretariat’s thunderous charge around the 1.5-mile track at Belmont that day — finishing in a world-record time of 2 minutes, 24 seconds, and by 31 lengths — would inspire a later-in-life career in the Sport of Kings. But that’s what Little has undertaken.

Keith Little is a part-owner of Living the

"It's about exposure, exposure of people of color in a business that for the most part doesn’t have people of color.” — Keith Little

'A dream come true'

Although not yet retired from a career in health and human services, Little is looking ahead to a second one in an area that he probably would not have had access to in, say, 1973. Little, who is Black, is one of 12 entrepreneurs of color who have formed a partnership to help establish an ownership footprint in horse racing, an industry historically dominated by whites. Living the Dream Stables is the name of their venture and for Little, having a stake in it, he says, "is a dream come true."

While it has taken a long time for the opportunity to emerge, one of Little’s oldest friends, Brumsic Brandon III, is not surprised Little is now jumping into the business side of a sport he has loved since they were kids together.

"I was always an animal kind of guy, and Keith was a sports kind of guy," recalled Brandon, 64, a retired science teacher who lives in Freeport. "So it made sense we would kind of find horse racing together."

It was clear as far back as that storied Belmont Stakes, however, who had the more astute judgment when it came to racing. "Keith picked Secretariat to win, and I picked Sham," Brandon said, referring to the horse that was supposed to challenge Secretariat that day but finished last. "He had a better sense of this sport even back then."

Little says his love of horse racing had little to do with dreams of a successful wager.

"I’ve never been much of a bettor," he said — unless, he joked, you count the penny wager he made with an elderly neighbor on Secretariat. It’s the competition, the pageantry and, of course, the horses, that attract him to the sport. "I think they’re beautiful animals," he said, "and I just love the sport."

As an adult, Little has attended the Belmont Stakes a number of times. He also watches the Kentucky Derby every year — and it was during the broadcast of the 2020 event that he first heard about Living the Dream, an effort to create greater diversity at the ownership levels of what is, according to several estimates, a $100 billion industry.

"The story was about a few African American gentlemen who were forming a minority syndicate," he said. "I was intrigued. I’d always wanted to get involved in ownership."

Little contacted the co-founder, Greg Harbut of Lexington, Kentucky, whose family has a long and distinguished history in the sport. Harbut, 37, is the great grandson of Will Harbut, the groom to the legendary 1920s racehorse Man O’ War (Will Harbut later toured the country, appearing on stage with the horse and recounting anecdotes from their long career together).

Greg’s grandfather Tom Harbut was a respected trainer who worked with horses owned by such prominent individuals as cosmetics pioneer Elizabeth Arden, film mogul Louis B. Mayer and Harry F. Guggenheim, the diplomat, aviator and business tycoon whose third wife, Alicia Patterson, was the founder and publisher of Newsday. Tom Harbut also bred and owned Touch Bar, a horse that participated in the 1962 Kentucky Derby. But, said his grandson, "due to the racial injustice not just in Kentucky but in the nation at that time, he was not allowed to be listed as co-owner or attend the Derby."

Joining minority investors

Along with a fellow Black racing-industry professional Ray Daniels, Harbut started Living the Dream Stables in 2017. Acknowledging that horse race ownership is an expensive proposition, he noted that "there’s a notion out there you have to be an oil baron or a billionaire to participate," he said. "That’s not true."

Organizing a dozen or so minority investors, he felt, could allow them to break into the ranks of ownership. "There are a lot of successful African Americans out there," Harbut said. "We felt that it if we could put those folks together under the umbrella of a syndicate, that would be tangible and doable."

The partnership — or syndicate, in racing parlance — that Harbut and Daniels organized purchased its first horse at a public auction for $180,000 last year. "If we went to one guy and said we need $180,000 plus upkeep, that’s a hard sell," said Harbut. "With 10 it’s not."

Especially when one of those 10 partners is Little. "Very professional, very classy individual was my first impression of Keith Little," Harbut said. "That was apparent in our first conversation. I could also hear the passion and love he had for this industry."

As soon as Little heard Harbut’s goals and his business model, he was in. Now, a year, later, he is a proud co-owner of a 2-year-old thoroughbred, named Fantastic, who is running times in practice that would make him competitive in major races. But while their horse is developing, the group still wants to make its presence known in the industry.

And so it was that this past May, Little found himself in a private suite at the Kentucky Derby along with Harbut and the other members of the syndicate. At one point before the race, there was a small commotion in their suite. The governor of Kentucky, Andy Beshear, had stopped by to say hello. "And it wasn’t just hi and goodbye," Little said. "He was engaged in conversation with us."

As the members of Living the Dream Stables chatted with the governor, Little looked around and noticed that many of those in the adjacent owner suites — almost all white — were looking quizzically over at them. "It seemed like they were wondering, ‘what is the governor doing with all those Black guys?’ " Little recalled with a chuckle.

Although he doesn’t routinely rub elbows with governors, Little is no stranger to politics, whether in government or business. Born in Brooklyn he and his brother, Kenny, moved with their parents to New Cassel in 1959. His father, Kenneth, was a prominent member of the local Kiwanis and Republican Clubs. His mother, Mildred, was active with the Democrats.

"I think their strategy was to cover both parties, to their mutual benefit," said Little, who says he learned the value of networking and engagement with local officials from his parents.

Learning the industry

Little graduated from Westbury High School in 1974, attended the University of Bridgeport as an undergraduate and later earned a master’s in public administration from Baruch College. He worked for 31 years in health and human services positions for New York State, becoming associate commissioner for the Children’s Division of the Office of Mental Health.

Little, who is married and has two adult children, left government work in 2012 and in 2018 became president and CEO of SCO Family of Services, a nonprofit that provides services including foster care, mental health and school-based services to families in Nassau, Suffolk and New York City.

Eventually, he said, he hopes to devote himself full time to the business of horse racing — "my retirement venture," he calls it. For now, though, he’s trying to learn more about the industry and make Living the Dream Stables visible within the industry.

"It's about exposure," Little said, "exposure of people of color in a business that for the most part doesn’t have people of color."

To that end, Little joined Harbut and the other syndicate partners at the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in San Diego on Nov. 5 and 6. The cup is a showcase of top thoroughbreds that compete in a series of races over two days.

"It was a fabulous trip," Little said. "We met a lot of people in the industry, and I’m learning a lot about the business of horse racing."

Eventually, though, Little, who lives in Uniondale, wants to be part of something that will be more than symbolic. He imagines a day when he and his fellow Black co-owners will be standing in the paddock area by the Secretariat statue on the day of the Belmont Stakes, watching one of their horses parade by.

"We want to be a presence at the race," Little said. "The next step is being a presence on the racetrack."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the year Keith Little left government service. He stopped working for the state in 2012.

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