Cornbread smelled a bit like grass and gasoline.
He’d spent the morning hard at work, cutting grass in the large, open lot on Rodman Street.
“Just keeping everything trimmed up,” he said during a break. “Getting ready for the Derby.”
The Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks are big business for Cornbread — whose given name is Cornelius Paynter. A key to that business, for Paynter, is open, grassy lawns.
He lives in South Louisville, the neighborhood in which Churchill Downs sits. His house, along with his mother’s, is just a few blocks north of the track. And when race day arrives, he hits the street to direct passers-by in search of parking to his property.
Together, Paynter and the many others who live around Churchill Downs form a micro-economy that feeds off the thousands of people that attend the famed horse races each year.
Some, like him, turn their lawns into parking lots. Others sell bottled water or set up front yard barbecue stands.
The work isn’t easy, Paynter said. Often, he said, strangers will prowl the neighborhood in attempt to direct a vehicle to a yard they don’t own and then pocket the cash.
“Trying to make that quick money,” he said. “It’s a killer.”
Still, it’s worth the effort, Paynter said.
Last year he pulled in more than $1,500 on Friday and Saturday.
‘Dead without Churchill Downs’
Paynter grew up in the same neighborhood where he lives today.
Parking cars on Derby Day is a tradition, of sorts. When he was young, Paynter and other neighborhood kids would feverishly work to fill up their lawns with cars in exchange for cash.
Eventually, he got a job inside the famous racetrack, where he worked for some 30 years. The job took him to New York, where he worked under legendary horse trainer John Veitch, when Pure Truth won the Belmont Stakes in 1985.
“One of the best guys I worked for in my life,” said Paynter.
Churchill Downs is something of a beacon for the South Louisville neighborhood, Paynter said. The track has brought jobs and opportunity for him, his family and friends.
“This neighborhood had been dead without Churchill Downs,” he said.
The economic boost of Derby week is an added bonus, too.
Lately, though, the scope of the street-level economy has waned, Paynter said.
Regulatory measures from Louisville Metro government, requiring a permit to set up a front yard barbecue stand or sell merchandise has led to fewer people taking part, he said.
In fact, a call to Metro311 confirmed a $50 permit is required if residents are looking to sell goods, like food, from their own property.
Without it, such operations can be shuttered.
Paynter said the added regulations, coupled with ever increasing prices to get into the track on race day, is threatening the very soul of the Kentucky Derby.
“Be reasonable, make your money, but you don’t have to rob people,” he said. “They come here to lay out and have fun.”
A parking spot in the lot on Rodman Street this weekend will cost between $10 and $20, said Paynter.
A few blocks south, closer to the track, spots will be as high as $50.
Paynter’s daughter and nephew will join him on race day to work the streets and flag down cars. He’s well aware of the party Derby brings to the neighborhood but he doesn’t mind it. It’s just a few days, he said.
And when it comes to the race, he likely won’t even tune in to see who wins.
“I’ve seen enough racing to last me a lifetime.”