KY Derby moved to Sept. 5; updates on other track schedules

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: March 17, 2020

This year’s Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks will be held in early September because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation, according to a March 17 release from Churchill Downs Inc.

The company said the Oaks will be run Friday, Sept. 4, and the Derby Saturday, Sept. 5, which is Labor Day weekend. The change is contingent on final approval from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which is expected to approve the move March 19. The Oaks and Derby were scheduled for May 1-2.

“Throughout the rapid development of the COVID-19 pandemic, our first priority has been how to best protect the safety and health of our guests, team members and community,” CDI Chief Executive Officer Bill Carstanjen said. “As the situation evolved, we reached the difficult conclusion that we needed to reschedule. At no point did we ever consider canceling the Kentucky Derby.”

The CDI release indicated the regular spring meet at Churchill Downs will continue as planned pending future virus developments. Keeneland, also in Kentucky, already announced it has canceled its 2020 spring meet because of COVID-19 and resulting restrictions.

The status of the May 16 Preakness Stakes and June 6 Belmont Stakes—the other two legs of the Triple Crown—remains in flux. Pimlico Race Course is scheduled to begin its meet in early May.

“Our first priority in these difficult times is the health and welfare of our industry participants and the public at large,” the Maryland Jockey Club said in a statement. “We are working with state and local governments, our industry participants, media and other affiliates to determine the most appropriate time to conduct the Preakness Stakes.

“While we are mindful of the challenges these times present we also know that events like the Preakness Stakes can help restore our sense of place and economic well-being to our communities and state. As soon as we have further clarity on these matters we will inform all.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, however, said March 17 the Preakness would be postponed until sometime in September. New York Racing Association CEO David O’Rourke issued a statement that indicated NYRA is working with media partner NBC Sports to determine the timing of this year’s Belmont.

As of March 17 it appeared live racing—with no patrons in attendance—would continue at Laurel Park, where the March 20 program was already drawn last week. NYRA, despite the closure of casinos in the state, said it was working with the New York State Gaming Commission to continue racing at Aqueduct Racetrack with no patrons in attendance.

In a March 16 release, NYRA said its Preparedness and Response Plan Committee, comprised of key NYRA staff members as well as representatives from the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, the Backstretch Employee Service Team and the New York Race Track Chaplaincy of America, will closely monitor and assess developments regarding the coronavirus.

“The health and safety of employees, fans, horsemen and the backstretch community is paramount,” O’Rourke said in a release. “Now that we have experienced racing under these conditions for three days, we remain confident in our ability to safely conduct racing operations behind closed doors and with only the staff that are required under the rules of racing in New York. Of course, we will constantly evaluate this situation over the coming days in advance of (March 20) and make further adjustments as necessary.”

NYRA tightened its protocols by prohibiting owners from accessing the track during live racing and its barn areas at Aqueduct and Belmont Park.

The Stronach Group, which owns the MJC tracks, Gulfstream Park in Florida, and Golden Gate Fields and Santa Anita Park in California, last week implemented the no-patron policy to greatly reduce on-site activity March 13-15. It appeared as though Gulfstream and the two California tracks would continue live racing.

Fair Grounds Racetrack & Slots in Louisiana will continue live racing with no patrons on the ground as per a March 16 announcement, as will Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia continues to offer racing and its casino and grandstand remain open for betting.

Tracks that have suspended live racing include Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course, Parx Racing and Pennsylvania’s two operating harness tracks. The Pennsylvania closures are said to be for two weeks but could be extended depending on developments.

The Delaware THA March 17 issued a notice that the barn area at Delaware Park, which shut down casino and simulcast operations March 16, did open as scheduled March 15 and that horses continue to arrive in advance of the 2020 meet that begins in late May. The horsemen’s group suggested that anyone approved for stabling ship in sooner rather than later.

NTRA offers guidance on COVID-19

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, during a media teleconference March 17, provided an update on coronavirus (COVID-19) protocols, actions taken by racetracks and horsemen’s groups, and resources available to the racing community.

The teleconference followed March 16 tele-meeting the NTRA organized among various racing officials. NTRA Chief Executive Officer Alex Waldrop said officials were urged to be in regular contact with state and local health departments and governors’ offices, and to also keep abreast of federal guidance.

The NTRA has added a COVID-19 information page on its website (ntra.com).

Waldrop noted racetracks and even states may have “different levels of concern” given regional statistics but said: “We are advising racetracks to consider themselves as communities with various sub-communities” including backstretch employees and employees required to put on racing programs.

As for holding live racing without patrons given the circumstances, Waldrop called it “a great for those tracks that can do it. It’s an opportunity for racing to distinguish itself. It’s an opportunity (for racing) but we have to be responsible. We must be cognizant of social distancing.”

Waldrop also said movement of horses “could potentially create more problems”—even though equines aren’t impacted by the virus itself—because of the personnel that may travel with them from facility to facility. He spoke of the Keeneland policy that limits its barn area to only horses currently stabled there; staff at the Kentucky track is also taking the temperature of people at the stable gate.

(Kentucky Derby photo courtesy Churchill Downs/Coady Photography)