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Is The Run For The Roses A Run For The New Normal? Kentucky Derby To Allow Fans

Written By Brant James on June 29, 2020 - Last Updated on January 23, 2024
Horse Rider at Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby has been part sporting event, part gala for more than a century. It’s a rite-of-spring spectacle and a deep-ingrained facet of the local identity in Louisville, a fashion show for the dandies, a bacchanal for the rich, pretend rich and regular folk and, for two-ish crucial minutes on the first Saturday in May, the greatest thoroughbred horse race in the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures imposed to mitigate its impacts appeared to change all of that. But maybe it just delayed it. This could be different and familiar all at once.

The 146th installment of the Kentucky Derby scheduled to be held on Sept. 5 will serve as the second jewel of the Triple Crown instead of the celebrity-making first. This year it will determine if Belmont Stakes-winner Tiz the Law can take the next strides toward legend by winning over 1 ¼ miles in Louisville and then again in the Preakness Stakes on Oct. 3 to become the 14th winner – and third since 2015 – of sport’s three iconic races.

There will be nattily attired fans in sear sucker and pastel and oh so many hats.

A reversal of rule on spectators

Churchill Downs officials announced on Thursday that a reduced contingent of fans “under strict guidelines,” according to a release, will be allowed to attend a race that regularly draws in excess of 150,000. Though many details remain unknown to the public, including ticket-buyers, there will be fans in the 60,000-seat reserved area, which, as usual, has been bought up, in part, for lucrative resale opportunities for the locals.

Though general admission seating may be reduced by more than 60 percent, there could be upwards of 24,000 in the infield according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

And, as part of the new normal, there will be an encouragement of mask usage when patrons are not seated. Maybe masks could become a new fashion statement, or they could litter the grounds of the 145-year-old track of the grounds like spent horse betting slips.

That’s the other facet of the gamble.

With other major sports yet to return and far from reconciling whether they will admit spectators, the Run for the Roses will be a bourbon-soaked case study in what the immediate future of fandom could look like in North America.

There is the assumption that the ritual consumption of mint juleps or cheaper alternatives will be directly proportional to the adherence to these rules, and the gravitas or insistence of the non-compliant will have great effect on ushers enforcing them.

“Our team is deeply committed to holding the very best Kentucky Derby ever, and we will take all necessary steps to protect the health and safety of all who attend and participate in the Derby,” Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery said in a release. “In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have established a comprehensive set of operating procedures, which include a multitude of precautionary measures to be followed while fans are in attendance at our facility. We are determined to keep our customers, employees and communities as safe as we responsibly can.””

What are the COVID-19 safety protocols at the Kentucky Derby?

The conditions for opening the Derby to fans were established by the Louisville Metro Health Department and Kentucky’s Healthy at Work guidance. Among them, pulled from the Churchill Downs release, are:

  • Venue capacity reductions to limit overall crowd density, including general admission, outdoor reserved seating, premium dining and suites.
  • Access throughout the facility will be severely limited.
  • Credentials for employees, media and guests will be reduced.
  • Barn area access will be restricted to essential personnel. Guests and parties in the barn area for morning workouts and during race days will be eliminated.
  • Changes in venue operations to limit person-to-person touchpoints.
  • Team member protocols established to protect employees and guests.
  • A revised Fan Code of Conduct that establishes expectations for guests coming to the Derby.
    • Guests will be consistently and frequently encouraged to wear a mask at all times unless seated in their reserved seat or venue. This includes when:
      • Riding on a shuttle
      • Traveling through the venue
      • Going to the restroom
      • Placing an in-person wager
      • Purchasing food or beverages from a concession stand
    • Guests will be asked to wash their hands for 20 seconds or sanitize them frequently.
    • Guests will be encouraged to socially distance themselves from others when possible.

DraftKings hopes to offer fixed-odds Derby wagering

Pari-mutuel wagering has been a staple of DraftKings’ offerings at its Scarlet Pearl sportsbook partner in D’Iberville, Miss., but disparate state regulations have prevented the wagering and daily fantasy giant from expanding the practice throughout its properties nationally.

Sportsbook Director Johnny Avello hopes that will change in time for the Derby, telling PlayUSA that DraftKings is in the processing of requesting permission from the other states where it operates – New Jersey, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Iowa, West Virginia, Indiana and Colorado – to offered fixed-odds wagering on the Derby.

“We’re in the process of trying to get into the horse racing game with some fixed odds. Hopefully, we can have something to offer our customers,” Avello told PlayUSA. “We don’t have all the approvals yet. We’re waiting to get that, but we want to be able to be in the game somewhat. So that could be our first step to enter it.

“You’d like it to be everywhere. Certain jurisdictions have different rules and so you have to follow the rules of those jurisdictions. Some may allow you to do it. Some may not. That’s another hurdle for us to cross. That’s why we’re still in the beginning stages of trying to get this done.”

Trainers and fans both equally eager for Kentucky Derby return

The Churchill Downs decision was lauded by horse players and trainers, with D. Wayne Lukas telling the Louisville Courier-Journal that running without spectators, as has been the case throughout the United States since March, is “just flat. It doesn’t have any feel.”

Trainer Todd Pletcher, who trains Derby-possibility Dr Post, added “I’ve been to the Florida Derby and Belmont Stakes now without fans and it’s certainly a different atmosphere than we’re used to. But at the same time, we’ve been thankful that we’ve been able to conduct those races and we’re looking forward to getting back to the traditional way of racing.”

It likely won’t be completely traditional, though, pending a marked reversal of COVID-19’s progression both nationally and in Kentucky. Churchill Downs has so far asserted that all tickets purchased for the Derby and Kentucky Oaks weekend will be honored, but that seems mathematically impossible given their intended restrictions.

Even as much of the country experiences a resurgence of coronavirus cases since states have begun easing restrictions, leagues have dangled the possibility of actually playing in front of throngs. The NFL out-sourced the decision-making process to franchises last week, and baseball executives hold out hope that there could be spectators if the MLB season commences as planned on July 23-24.

Tracks that house NASCAR races have slowly moved to opening the turnstiles. Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials announced that they hope to allow spectators for the rescheduled Aug. 23 Indianapolis 500, another storied rite of spring moved off its Memorial Day weekend for the first time since 1946.

Horse racing seeks launch off Kentucky Derby notoriety

After enjoying a clear trip through much of the spring as one of the few domestic sports options still available to bettors, thoroughbred horse racing can use the infusion of interest that the Derby uniquely brings.

The question remains whether this event, which is slotted into the mainstream consciousness as a May event, can find traction in early September, which, barring pull-backs by major North American sports leagues, will be packed with high-profile sports events rescheduled from earlier in the year.

The Belmont Stakes, competing for mainstream attention with little but NASCAR and the PGA Tour, scored poor television ratings on NBC Sports. With no patrons on-site and not all tracks open nationally, the Belmont’s all-source handle of $67,753,336 was down 37 percent from 2019, which set a record for a year when a Triple Crown was not in play.

Who are the favorites for the Kentucky Derby?

The fifth round of Churchill Downs’ pari-mutuel futures pool was conducted this weekend at Churchill Downs, with Tiz the Law bet to 2-1 after being listed as an early 7-2 favorite by linemaker Mike Battaglia. Wagering closed on Sunday.

Tiz the Law, trained by Barclay Tagg, is being pointed toward the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course in August.

Cafe Pharoah, the son of 2015 Triple Crown-winner American Pharoah, had an eventful trip in the pool, bouncing from 20-1 in the morning line, to as low as 10-1, to 14-1 after romping by five lengths in the Unicorn Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse last weekend.

Honor A.P. was the second most popular pick at 6-1.

Avello called the futures odds on Tiz the Law “ridiculous.”

“You’ll get 2-to-1 on Derby Day and if you bet now the horse has to race or you lose your money [in a future pool],” he added.

Avello said no colt should be considered better than 10-1 this far from a race.

“The reason for that is that we’re 11 weeks away, 10 weeks away,” Avello said. “He’s going to run the Travers Stakes, which is going to be run August 8th, I believe is the date. Every race will be a mile and a quarter. So he actually stretches out to that. There’ll be distance there.

“I just don’t feel that any horse this far out should be any or should be less than 10.”

The Churchill Downs fifth-installment future pool included 22 colts and entries for all other three-year-old fillies not listed – it closed at 24-1- and all other three-year-old colts (8-1). A quarter of a year out, Bob Baffert-trained Gamine would appear the top hope in the fillies pool, with gelding Sole Volante the only 3-year-old listed in the Thoroughbred Times’ top dozen Derby candidates not included. The winner of the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs lost luster with an uninspiring sixth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes.

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile-winner Storm the Court was also left out of the fifth pool, but remains an enigma after finishing third as a 2-1 favorite on Saturday in the Grade III Ohio Derby. The colt hasn’t won since that Juvenile win, but is 13th in the Derby-qualification standings. The Ohio-winner, Dean Martini, isn’t currently Derby-nominated.

Eight of the top 22 colts in the pool have no Derby qualification points or stakes wins.

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Brant James

Brant James is a veteran journalist who has twice been recognized in the Associated Press Sports Editors Awards, most recently in 2020. He's covered motorsports, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball among a myriad of others beats and written enterprise and sports business for publications including USA TODAY,,

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