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Filmmaker telling story of Black racing jockeys visiting Paducah

Harmony In Diversity Productions
A promotional image for "Jocko," an upcoming film aiming to celebrate the lives of the Black horse racing jockeys that dominated the early years of the Kentucky Derby.

New York-based filmmaker Derek Vitatoe is in preparations to make a “Jocko” — a new feature film based on the lives of Black horse racing jockeys and telling the story of their dominance early on in the history of the Kentucky Derby.

Vitatoe is visiting Paducah this week for a private reading of his unfinished screenplay while he seeks funding for the project — which takes inspiration from Oliver Lewis, the first jockey to win the Derby, and other Black Derby winners from the contest's early years.

“Black jockeys dominated the sport of horse racing before segregation and racism took over and took Blacks off of the racetrack,” Vitatoe said. “It’s been over 100 years since a Black jockey has won the Kentucky Derby, when most people don’t know that it was a Black jockey that won the very first Kentucky Derby.”

Vitatoe’s plans to craft a film that is both educational and inspirational as it deals with the struggles and triumphs experienced by African-Americans in the horse racing industry during the post-Civil War and Reconstruction eras.

“You know most people think and believe that Jackie Robinson, and rightfully so, was the first person to break the color barrier in sports,” the director said. “I would challenge that and say that it was the Black jockeys because you had individuals who excelled in their sport at the time and wasn’t recognized and have pretty much been eradicated from the history books.

“I’m really really excited about this project and the possibilities of what this project could do not only for the state of Kentucky but the world in general.”

The director researched this subject for a decade before beginning formal preparations this year and visiting a number of Kentucky cities — including Paducah, Franklin, Lexington, Louisville, and Russellville — over the past few months. He aims to shoot “Jocko” in locations across the state in the fall of 2022.

More information and updates about “Jocko,” are available on the film’s Facebook page.

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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