Kentucky Derby moving to September because of coronavirus

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Churchill Downs announced Tuesday that it will move the Kentucky Derby from its traditional date on the first Saturday in May to Sept. 5 this year because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

In a teleconference with reporters, Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said that NBC is in talks with the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, the final two races in the Triple Crown, to move those races to mid-September and early October. Under the traditional Triple Crown schedule, if the Kentucky Derby is Sept. 5, the Preakness would be Sept. 19 and the Belmont on Oct. 10.

“We hope the parties can reach a final agreement, and will make for a really unique triple crown season and a perfect setup for this year’s Breeders’ Cup,” Carstanjen said.

The Kentucky Derby and its associated events attract hundreds of thousands of people to Louisville, with last year’s race drawing more than 150,000 at Churchill Downs.

“We gave [Preakness and Belmont officials] a heads up as we got close to finalizing an arrangement with our NBC partners. They were receptive. They have their own questions. I know they’re talking to NBC now,” Carstanjen said. “Certainly there is time in the calendar that NBC can make available so it can be a pretty similar spacing that we normally have between triple crown races. . . . It’s all possible. They just have to work it out together, and I hope they do.”

In a statement issued after Tuesday’s teleconference, the New York Racing Authority, which operates the Belmont Stakes, said it is working with “all appropriate parties” about the timing of this year’s race but that officials “look forward to its 152nd edition in 2020.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Sunday decreed that the state’s horse racing tracks and casinos be “closed to the general public,” though racing continued Sunday at Laurel Park. The shutdown could affect the Preakness Stakes, which is scheduled to run May 16. Moving the date of the Preakness outside the month of May could be a challenge, considering that the Maryland Racing Commission only has approved racing at Pimlico for May 7-25 this year. Under a Maryland law passed in 1987, the Preakness can be moved away from Pimlico “only as a result of a disaster or emergency.”

The Maryland Jockey Club, which operates the Preakness, has yet to comment on the schedule change announced by Churchill Downs on Tuesday. From 1923 to 1931, the Preakness came before the Kentucky Derby on the racing schedule.

The Breeders’ Cup will be held Nov. 7 this year. Considering the taxing nature of the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes, it will be difficult for any horse that runs in that race to also take part in the Breeders’ Cup. Sept. 5 also is only a week after this year’s anticipated running of the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, another major race for 3-year-olds that usually is held on the last Saturday in August.

The Kentucky Oaks, the annual race for 3-year-old fillies that normally is held the day before the Kentucky Derby, will be run Sept. 4. All tickets already purchased for the Kentucky Derby in May will be honored on the new date.

The Kentucky Derby has been held every year since 1875 but has been held outside the month of May only twice. In 1945, the race was held June 9 after a federal ban on horse racing during World War II, enacted in January of that year, was lifted.

Amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, the Trump administration recommended Monday that public gatherings be limited to groups of no more than 10 people. The president himself suggested the outbreak could last until July or August.

Carstanjen said Tuesday that Churchill Downs had no intention of running the race without fans, calling it a “participatory” event.

Moving the Kentucky Derby to later in the year presents a number of issues, considering that the 3-year-old contenders spend the spring running in prep races that leave them in top condition to run on the first Saturday in May. On Tuesday, Carstanjen said points accrued from the prep races already on the schedule still will count and that he expected Churchill Downs to soon add new prep races to the schedule – “existing stakes races” around the country, he said – in which horses can accrue points toward entry in the derby.

“This will be fun, and give the fans more time to learn about and evaluate this year’s crop of 3-year-old thoroughbreds,” Carstanjen said.

Churchill Downs officials also had to find a date that suited NBC, the broadcast home of the derby, considering its commitments to broadcast Notre Dame football games in the fall. Sept. 5 and Oct. 24 are the only dates the network had available, with the latter one only two weeks before the Breeders’ Cup. NBC is scheduled to broadcast a Notre Dame-Western Michigan football game on the afternoon of Sept. 19, a possible date for the Preakness, and the Fighting Irish’s game against Stanford on the night of Oct. 10, a possible date for the Belmont.

A number of tracks held races over the weekend without fans present and will continue to do so, making horse racing one of the few sports to remain operational amid the coronavirus.

“It’s not a contact sport,” David O’Rourke, chief executive of the New York Racing Association, told the Daily Racing Form on Friday. “The jocks can ride against each other all day and can be essentially isolated from interacting with each other. We believe this is prudent. But as we’ve seen in the last week, anything can change. Regardless, we got to take care of the horses anyway, so running racing incrementally isn’t that far a reach over what we’re going to have to do anyway.”

On Monday, Keeneland in Kentucky announced it would be canceling its popular spring meet after previously saying it would go on as planned without fans present. Officials in England also announced Tuesday that horse racing there will be suspended until the end of April. Despite warnings about gathering in large groups, attendance at last week’s Cheltenham Festival there was down only 5.5% from 2019.

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