World wars, great depressions and countless global calamities have never stopped the Kentucky Derby, going all the way back to 1875. Only once, in 1945, was the Derby delayed, from May until June. Now, with only seven weeks until the 2020 Run for the Roses and the coronavirus pandemic shutting down sports across the athletic spectrum, Churchill Downs officials said they will make a decision “in the coming week” about the race’s status.

Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby
The twin spires of Churchill Downs could stand guard over an empty infield and grandstand for the first time in history. Officials plan to make an announcement on the Kentucky Derby’s status this week (Image: Yahoo News)

Track officials said they will decide whether or not to hold the race, scheduled for May 2, after consulting with the World Health Organization, Center for Disease Control and local public health officials. “A Message to our Guests, Fans, and Family,” posted Saturday at KentuckyDerby.com, read:

“The time-honored traditions of the Kentucky Derby are as much about the fans as the race itself. We recognize that the impact of this iconic event extends well beyond the historic racetrack of Churchill Downs.

“The Kentucky Derby is a cherished and important time for the City of Louisville and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. We are mindfully aware of our fans who travel from great distances to join us as well as our valued employees whose most intense preparations to host a world-class event begin now.

“For these reasons, we have been working carefully and diligently with relevant health experts and authorities to ensure we make the most responsible decision regarding the timing of the 146th Kentucky Derby this year. We thank you for your patience and are committed to providing regular communications and transparency as we move forward. This is not a decision we take lightly and we expect to have an update about the Kentucky Derby and the additional information on our upcoming Spring Meet in the coming week.”

Logistical Concerns Make Postponement Unlikely

Given the logistics involved for not only travelers, but race organizers, officials are cutting matters close.

It would be surreal for one of America’s longest-running sporting traditions — a race that drew 160,000 last year — proceeded with empty stands. But that seems to be the go-to solution for horse racing in the coronavirus age. From Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields in California to Aqueduct in New York, tracks are currently racing without spectators.

Because the Derby is restricted to 3-year-olds and attached to the other two Triple Crown events, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, postponing it would be tricky.

The Preakness is May 16 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. The Belmont runs three weeks later, June 6, at Belmont Park in New York. Triple Crown season lasts six weeks — from the Derby to Belmont — and each track has unique logistical and organizational demands.

Should the Derby be postponed, it would join a roster of sporting events shelved in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball have either suspended or postponed their seasons, along with two other spring staples, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and the Masters golf tournament.

UK Horse Racing Proceeds without Incident

Meanwhile, England also is fighting the global pandemic and weighing coronavirus concerns. So far, 10 people in the UK have died from 596 confirmed cases. But fears over COVID-19 haven’t led to race cancelations.

(The British Horseracing Authority did cancel races in February for a week to contain an outbreak of equine flu.)

The massive Cheltenham Festival proceeded as planned last week. The four-day gathering drew more than 200,000 fans, and wrapped up Friday with nearly 70,000 watching favorite Al Boum Photo win the event’s crown jewel, the Gold Cup. The announced crowd of 68,859 was less than 2,000 shy of last year’s record final-day crowd.

The BHA says it currently has no plans to limit racing, save for one closed-to-the-public meet in Scotland on Monday.

Next up on England’s racing schedule is the Grand National at Aintree, April 2-4. For now, the race is on. Track executives say it’s too early for a final decision, which ultimately will come from government health administrators.

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