And you thought that last year’s Kentucky Derby was bizarre.
Despite the confusion, controversy and anger over its first on-track disqualification, at least the race went off on schedule. Derby week was business as usual in Louisville: shameless price gouging by Churchill Downs, hotels and taxis, and human gridlock at The World’s Most Legendary Racetrack. Oh, if only we could be subjected to all that familiar aggravation again on May 2.
Welcome to The New Abnormal.
Thanks to the pandemic pandemonium, that’s not going to happen. The anticipated bad news came Tuesday morning, when Churchill Downs announced on a conference call that Derby 146 would be run Saturday, Sept. 5. The only other time the race has been moved was in June 1945, near the end of World War II.
Churchill Downs Incorporated CEO Bill Carstanjen called it “the most unique Kentucky Derby of our lifetimes.
“Through the rapid development of the COVID-19 pandemic, our first priority has been how to best protect the safety and health of our guests, team members and community,” Carstanjen said. “As the situation evolved, we reached the difficult conclusion that we needed to reschedule. It was a difficult but very necessary decision.
“At no point did we ever consider canceling the Kentucky Derby.”
In an eerie coincidence, the conference call lasted 22 minutes, the exact length of the stewards’ inquiry that disqualified Maximum Security from last year’s Derby victory. Believers in omens will cringe, and we can only hope that the virus will have been contained 5½ months from now.
“We hope this change will give our country time to control the coronavirus,” Carstanjen said.
Churchill admitted all plans are contingent, and that there’s no guarantee that Sept. 5 will be a go. In a release, the track issued a disclaimer that “we can give no assurances that such expectations will be correct.”
So there will be no Derby parties on the first Saturday in May, no mint juleps, no fun at all. America’s annual rite of spring has been pushed back to Labor Day weekend. Puts all that obsessing over Derby Top 10 lists in perspective, huh?
As for the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, their dates are up in the air, although it seems certain that they won’t occur May 16 and June 6. Carstanjen said that NBC, which televises the Triple Crown series, had approved switching the Derby to Sept. 5.
He also said representatives of the Maryland Jockey Club and the New York Racing Association have spoken to NBC.
Ideally, to maintain the tradition, the Preakness would be run two weeks after the Derby, in mid-September, and the Belmont three weeks later, in early October.
“It’s all possible,” Carstanjen said. “They just have to work it out together, and I hope they do.”
A September-October Triple Crown would lead into the Breeders’ Cup, scheduled for Nov. 6-7 at Keeneland.
Triple Crown history is filled with scheduling oddities. Here’s some trivia that might win you some bets at your local bar, unless it’s shut down. In 1917 and 1922, the Derby and Preakness were run on the same day. Latest dates: Derby (May 23, 1883); Preakness (June 11, 1898); Belmont (Nov. 2, 1895).
No, Nov. 2 is not a typo. The 1895 Belmont was delayed for five months after the New York Jockey Club ceased operations. Then the Westchester Racing Association took over Morris Park in the Bronx, the Belmont’s venue from 1890 until Belmont Park opened in 1905.
As for when and how this Triple Crown plays out, all possibilities are in play. It wasn’t until 1931 that the Derby, Preakness and Belmont were always run in that order.
Way back when, the Preakness was run 11 times before the Derby, and the Belmont 11 times before the Preakness. Could that history repeat? In a time of unprecedented uncertainty, never say never.
Churchill president Kevin Flanery sounded an upbeat note.
“We feel confident we’re going to run the Kentucky Derby, and we’re going to run it with a crowd,” he said. “We’re going to roll with the punches, and we feel Sept. 5 is the right date.”
From his mouth to the racing gods’ ears.