LEXINGTON, Ky. – In Tuesday’s teleconference announcing that the running of the 146th Kentucky Derby is being moved to Labor Day weekend, Churchill Downs Inc. Chief Executive Officer Bill Carstanjen put it plainly.
“ We feel confident that we are going to run the Kentucky Derby,” Carstanjen said, “and we’re going to run it with a crowd.”
He added, “The Derby is a participatory event.”
So the plan is to move the world’s most famous horse race from its traditional spot on the first Saturday in May to Sept. 5, 2020, which, as Churchill said Tuesday, “will enable our country to have time to contain the spread of the coronavirus.”
It will be the first time the Kentucky Derby has not been run in May since 1945 when there was a temporary ban on horse racing until the end of World War II. Instead, the 71st Kentucky Derby was run on June 9.
Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs, said the intention is to pick up the Derby week “footprint,” starting the Tuesday of the traditional Derby week, and move it to September, with the Kentucky Oaks being run on Friday, Sept. 4.
Churchill also said that television partner NBC is in talks with the Stronach Group, owners of Pimlico Race Course, and the New York Racing Association, about moving the Preakness and Belmont to September and early October, respectively, to keep the Triple Crown intact.
“Certainly there is time in the calendar that NBC can make available that it would be a pretty similar spacing that we normally have between Triple Crown races, two weeks for the Preakness, three weeks from the Preakness to the Belmont,” Carstanjen said. “It’s all possible. They just have to work it out together.”
The key, however, is the crowd element. Yes, many tracks, including Turfway Park in northern Kentucky, Oaklawn in Arkansas and Santa Anita in California, to name a few, have continued their racing meets without allowing spectators on the premises, but that won’t work for the Run for the Roses.
The Kentucky Derby is all about the crowd _ the pageantry, the clothes, the hats, the crazy costumes, the mint juleps, the nuttiness that goes on in the infield at Churchill Downs. It wouldn’t be the same without 150,000 or so people packed into the storied old track off Central Avenue.
Could you imagine a Kentucky Derby post parade without the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home”? Could you imagine the opening bell of the starting gate, the thundering of hooves in front of the grandstand and into the first turn without fans cheering in that grandstand?
It wouldn’t be right.
It wouldn’t be the Kentucky Derby.
Let’s hope that Pimlico and Belmont Park will step in line, as well, to keep the Triple Crown together. This could be a unique opportunity for the sport to keep interest going through the summer and into the fall _ Churchill said Tuesday it will add additional races to its point system that determines which horses qualify for the 20-horse field _ and beyond if the Triple Crown races can keep their traditional spacing.
Is this ideal? Of course not. There are a lot of other things going on over Labor Day weekend, of course. Here’s one: Kentucky football is scheduled to open its season Sept. 5 against Eastern Michigan at Kroger Field. Louisville football opens its season on Thursday, Sept. 3 against North Carolina State at Cardinal Stadium.
And considering the magnitude of the coronavirus threat _ a British model predicts that, without action, 2.2 million people in the United States could die _ there is no guarantee that the daily life of Americans will return to normal by September.
“Certainly things can change over time,” Castanjen said, before reiterating that the Derby’s “energy and its magic comes from everybody participating and being there to enjoy it. We’re going to make it happen. This race has happened 145 years in a row and it’s going to happen 146.”