Kentucky Derby Coronavirus: No Spectators, Or No Race At All?

Kentucky Derby Coronavirus: One of the biggest questions in thoroughbred racing has to be whether the Kentucky Derby will be run without spectators on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. Or even this: Will it be run at all?

With the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), already declared a global pandemic and continuing to spread, the sports world has been suspending seasons and canceling events on a daily basis, taking unprecedented steps to help prevent the spread of an illness that has caused more than 5,000 deaths around the world.

For now, spectators are out but the races are on as racetracks from California to New York, and around the world, respond to the virus. Racing at tracks including Santa Anita, Aqueduct, and Gulfstream Park are taking place, but with access only for employees and racing connections specified by the tracks.

Kentucky Derby Coronavirus: No Spectators, Or No Race At All?

Horse Racing: Photo courtesy of Ernie Belmonte

Other sports have reacted swiftly as well. On Friday, officials announced that the Masters – perhaps the most prestigious event in golf – has been canceled. The Boston Marathon was postponed five months, and rescheduled for Sept. 14.

The NBA, NHL and MLS seasons have been suspended; Major League Baseball canceled the remainder of spring training and delayed the start of the season by two weeks.

The NCAA canceled virtually all of its winter and spring championships; including the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and conference championships.

The list of cancellations, postponements, and suspensions goes on and on around the globe, from soccer leagues to high school sports to auto races to Olympic qualifying events; with concerns whether the Tokyo Olympics will be held at all, with the opening ceremony scheduled for July 24.

Kentucky Derby Coronavirus: Preparations Still Moving Forward

The 146th Run for the Roses on May 2 almost surely will be affected. Derby week in Louisville is the biggest festival in racing, drawing more than 100,000 race-goers on Kentucky Oaks day, May 1, and about 140,000 on Derby Day.

As of Friday, March 13, preparations for the Derby “are still moving forward,’’ according to a statement issued Thursday by Churchill Downs.

“With the event still seven weeks away, a decision will be made closer to that date, with respect to postponing the event until later in the year, using the most recent information while working with and seeking guidance from public health experts and authorities,’’ the statement said.

Rebel Stakes

On Thursday night, Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort said all of its races this weekend, including the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2), will be run without onsite spectators.

Dubai World Cup

The $12 million Dubai World Cup, the second richest race in the world that highlights a $35 million program at Meydan Racecourse on March 28, will be contested without “paid spectators.”

Those allowed to attend the races that day are limited to “horse connections, racing officials, accredited media, and sponsors,’’ race organizers said in a statement released Thursday.

Santa Anita Park / Golden Gate Fields

In California, at Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields, officials said spectators will not be permitted to attend the races following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s call for a ban on large events in the state.

“With the utmost regard for the safety and well-being of our customers and employees and in following the best available guidance from local and international health authorities, Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields will temporarily close to the public effective immediately,’’ said a statement issued by Santa Anita, which is owned by The Stronach Group.

Aidan Butler, a top racing official at Santa Anita, told that “it’s in everyone’s best interest to take these steps and we appreciate everyone’s understanding of this unique situation.”

New York Racing Association

In New York, following Gov. Mario Cuomo’s ban on gatherings of “500 people or more,” the New York Racing Association will run races but without spectators.

“We believe the most prudent decision to protect the health and wellbeing of all involved in our sport is to conduct upcoming race dates without attendees,” David O’Rourke, the chief executive of NYRA, said in a statement. “NYRA will continue to actively monitor this evolving situation and make further adjustments as necessary.”

Kentucky Derby

At Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, officials said the track will open on April 2 without spectators, and also canceled the 2-year-olds in training sale scheduled to open April 7.

The decisions were made, according to statement issued by Keeneland, after discussions with Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, the state health department and others, “out of an abundance of caution to do our part in containing the spread of COVID-19 while upholding our commitments to the local community, the thoroughbred industry and our staff.”

“While our horsemen and fans are certainly disappointed about us having to take these measures, it is critical to protect the health and safety of our patrons, employees and participants from the spread of COVID-19.” Keeneland President and CEO Bill Thomason said. “We take our responsibility to the community and the horse industry seriously and we will continue to work in partnership with government authorities.”

Spectators are also being excluded from attending races in Ireland, Hong Kong, Japan and France. Races at Laurel in Maryland, owned by The Stronach Group, also will be run without spectators.

Additional reporting by Lynne Snierson


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