LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs officials have gotten their wish, announcing Thursday that when the rescheduled Kentucky Derby is run in September there will be spectators in the stands — just more spread out than usual.
The historic track got the go-ahead to run the Derby and Oaks this fall with spectators under strict guidelines to limit crowd density for the marquee Triple Crown race that annually attracts more than 150,000.
The 146th running of the Oaks for fillies and the Derby had been postponed from May 1-2 to Sept. 4-5 because of the coronavirus pandemic. It is the first time since 1945 that horse racing’s premier event was not run on the first Saturday in May. Churchill Downs has run its delayed spring meet without spectators per state guidelines, but track officials had expressed a desire for the Run for the Roses to go off with fans watching in colorful hats and bright suits and drinking mint juleps.
After consulting with Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and local health officials, Churchill Downs will reduce capacity in general admission, outdoor reserved seating, premium dining and suites. Fans will be “consistently and frequently” encouraged to wear masks at all times unless seated, to practice social distancing when possible and to wash or sanitize hands frequently.
Last year’s rain-soaked Derby, awarded to Country House after Maximum Security was disqualified for interference, had 150,729 beneath the Twin Spires. Attendance obviously will be lower this year with new health protocols, and Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery isn't thinking about numbers.
“We’re very fortunate,” Flanery said during a news conference. “I mean, our infield has 26 acres of property. There is a large space there. We have over 1.6 million square feet of space under a roof on the front side. So we have a lot of space to move people around.”
Flanery added that he appreciated Beshear and health officials providing guidance that allowed the track to hold Derby Week with spectators.
“We really wanted to learn from what we’ve seen over the last three months in society,” he said. “I think we’ve all become accustomed to queue lines, to stanchions, to being socially distanced and trying to be respectful to one another. And we’re going to do that inside.”
Operations will be changed to limit person-to-person touch points. Track access will be limited, with the barns restricted to essential personnel. Parties in the barn area for morning workouts and race days will be eliminated.
Churchill Downs will announce information on tickets and seating in the coming days.
On Saturday, heavily favored Tiz the Law won an unprecedented Belmont, claiming victory at the first race of a rejiggered Triple Crown schedule that barred fans because of the pandemic.
This year's Derby is the Triple Crown's second leg and longest at 1 1/4 mile. The Preakness is scheduled for Oct. 3 at Pimlico in Baltimore.