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Volume 26 No. 134
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Churchill Downs CEO: Postponing Kentucky Derby "Very Difficult"

The Kentucky Derby has been held on the first Saturday in May every year since '45
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
The Kentucky Derby has been held on the first Saturday in May every year since '45
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
The Kentucky Derby has been held on the first Saturday in May every year since '45
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said it was a "very difficult" decision to move the Kentucky Derby from the first Saturday in May for only the second time in the race's 145-year history, but postponing the race "must be done," according to Chris Otts of Louisville-based WDRB-Fox. The Derby now will be run on Sept. 5. This year marks the "first time since 1945 -- when the Derby was run in June -- that the race "will not be on the first Saturday in May." Churchill Downs' "second-biggest race day of the year, the Kentucky Oaks, will be held as always the day before, Sept. 4." Carstanjen called the coronavirus pandemic the most "difficult and challenging circumstances the horse industry has faced in his career." Otts notes Churchill Downs' plan is "predicated on the novel virus being contained by Labor Day." Otts: "But what if it isn't?" Carstanjen "did not detail the company's contingency plans except to rule out running the race without the presence of fans." Carstanjen: "The Kentucky Derby is a participatory event. Its energy and its magic really comes from everybody participating and being there to enjoy it. We're gonna make it happen" (WDRB.com, 3/17). In N.Y., Salam & Vigdor note the postponement of the race came as Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear "ordered schools and restaurants closed to try to prevent the spread of the virus in the state" (N.Y. TIMES, 3/17). 

BEHIND THE PROCESS: Carstanjen said that the Sept. 5 date was chosen "after talks with NBC Sports, which televises the Triple Crown races, based on the limited number of sports events that weekend and hotel availability in Louisville." The AP's Beth Harris notes the Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown, "draws strong TV ratings." The Sept. 5 date "wouldn't conflict with Notre Dame football, satisfying NBC Sports, which televises both." Univ. of Louisville football has an away game that day. Carstanjen said that Churchill Downs alerted the two other Triple Crown tracks -- Pimlico in Baltimore and Belmont Park in N.Y. -- as it "got close to completing a new date with NBC." Carstanjen: "They were receptive and had their own questions. There is time in the calendar that NBC can make available. They just have to work it out together and I hope they do" (AP, 3/17).

BEST POSSIBLE SOLUTION: In Louisville, Tim Sullivan writes rescheduling the Derby for Sept. 5 "took some thought," after the CDC's latest recommendation "forced the hand of the fence-straddlers at Churchill Downs." Churchill Downs currently controls three sets of '20 racing dates: April 25-June 27; Sept. 16-27 and Oct. 28-Nov. 29. However, additional dates "can be made available on an emergency basis by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission." Meanwhile, NBC’s contractual commitment to Notre Dame "leaves only two Saturdays between late August and early December when the network is not broadcasting Fighting Irish football: Sept. 5 and Oct. 24." Because the latter date "falls only two weeks before the Breeders' Cup is scheduled to be conducted at Keeneland, a tough turnaround for top 3-year-olds, the Sept. 5 date was always more logical and more likely." Whether the Derby will "retain its traditional place as the first of the Triple Crown races, however, is unclear" (Louisville COURIER-JOURNAL, 3/17).

SETTING UP FOR A HUGE FALL: ESPN’s Trey Wingo said all the sports cancellations have created a situation where fans will “have the Kentucky Derby in September and The Masters in October.” Wingo: “This is going to be a bleak spring and early summer … but the bounty we could reap back in the fall could be incredible” (“Golic & Wingo,” ESPN Radio, 3/17). In Louisville, Eric Crawford writes, “To have the Derby looming ahead of us in September is a gift. The Derby now is the light at the end of the tunnel, hopefully. There’s no telling how things will look then, but the hope is that it’ll be safe to throw a party once again” (WDRB.com, 3/17). In L.A., Mark Whicker: “If we have to wait until Labor Day to remind ourselves how overrated a mint julep can be and how majestic a 20-horse stampede can look, so be it” (L.A. DAILY NEWS, 3/17).

ADDITIONAL FALLOUT: In Baltimore, Childs Walker notes the Derby being postponed "could lead to a similar postponement for the Preakness Stakes, traditionally run at Pimlico Race Course two weeks after the Derby." The Maryland Jockey Club yesterday in a statement said it is working to "determine the most appropriate time to conduct the Preakness Stakes" (BALTIMORE SUN, 3/17). In Louisville, Eric Crawford reported Keeneland Race Course has canceled its '20 spring meet, which was to run from April 2-24, and full refunds will be "issued for tickets already purchased." Keeneland will "continue to stable horses already on its grounds, but will take no additional horses" (WDRB.com, 3/16).

BUCKING THE TREND: DAILY RACING FORM's David Grening noted the New York Racing Association is planning for "live racing to continue at Aqueduct, though with increased restrictions." Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens is "scheduled to hold an eight-race card Friday," and is "scheduled to race Fridays through Sundays through March." Aqueduct has 13 cards scheduled in April "before racing is scheduled to move to Belmont Park on April 24." Aqueduct raced last weekend with "certain restrictions, such as allowing owners access only to a horsemen's lounge on the second floor of the track." Starting Friday, owners will be "completely barred from Aqueduct as well as the barn area at Belmont Park." Many people "felt racing operations went well at Aqueduct last weekend" (DRF.com, 3/16).