Churchill Backstretch to Open May 11, Opening Date For 4-Day Race Weeks TBA

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Beshear in 2019 | Getty Images

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Churchill Downs has been cleared by Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear to open its backstretch area May 11 so long as the track adheres to enhanced pandemic precautions approved by the state.

Beshear announced the clearance Wednesday at his daily COVID-19 video press conference as part of a phased-in reopening for various state industries. Churchill followed up about an hour later with a press release that included specifics pertinent to horsemen.

Neither Beshear nor the track pinpointed an exact date for the return of live racing. But the Churchill release stated “it will be staged at a minimum of four days per week,” Thursday through Sunday.

“The stable areas will reopen under a phased, systematic approach,” the release stated. “Opening day of the 2020 spring meet with spectator-free racing will be communicated in the coming days after track officials evaluate its incoming horse population and load-in procedures.”

A revised condition book and stakes schedule are in the pipeline.

“Racing at Churchill Downs during the spring meet will be conducted spectator-free until government officials approve fans returning to the historic track,” the release continued. “Only authorized racetrack employees and Kentucky Horse Racing Commission license-holders who are providing support for a horse stabled at the facility will be permitted on property. This specifically includes only trainers with horses stabled or racing on the facility grounds and those who are responsible for the care of the horses (veterinarians, grooms, exercise riders and farriers).”

The following is a listing of racetracks and when horses based there may return to the Churchill Downs stable areas between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.:

  • Fair Grounds (May 11-13)
  • Gulfstream Park, Tampa Bay Downs, and horses based at Florida training centers (May 14-16)
  • Oaklawn Park (May 17-19)
  • All other locales (May 20 onward)

New health mandates will include wearing a mask “prior to entering and all times while on the grounds, COVID-19 testing and passing a medical screening which includes a medical questionnaire and temperature reading.”

Personnel cleared for entrance will be issued a color-coded wristband to indicate they’ve passed the health check (new colors issued each day).

“All individuals who refuse to comply with the COVID-19 Action Plan or those who do not pass the medical screening will be denied entry onto the premises and asked to self-quarantine per CDC guidelines,” the release stated. “A log will be kept for individuals that fail initial medical screening so that track security can ensure current CDC self-quarantine timelines have been met prior to attempted re-entry to site.”

Once racing resumes, the release stated, “Grandstand, frontside and paddock access will be strictly limited to horsemen with horses racing and approved racing officials and track staff…. Congregating on the apron in large groups will not be allowed. All facilities will remain closed to the general public. There will be no onsite wagering for racing to reduce the likelihood of congregation and to limit touchpoints on the grounds. Paddock access will be limited to the trainer, assistant trainer, groom and horse only.”

As for jockeys, the release stated, “Churchill Downs will ensure that jockeys and staff are adequately spaced out in the jockeys’ room to comply with proper social distance guidelines. Jockeys shipping in from out of state or [who] are outside of the normal colony will be separated in another room.”

According to Beshear, the May 11 date will be the first benchmark in a three-date series of phased-in re-openings during the month of May for Kentucky businesses. Other industries cleared to resume with proper precautions on that date are manufacturing, construction, vehicle dealerships, professional services, and pet groomers.

On May 20, retail establishments and houses of worship will be able to open on a limited basis. On May 25, Kentucky expects to phase in the allowance of 10-person social gatherings and the reopening of health and beauty businesses like barbers and salons.

“We were able to come to an agreement [on Apr. 28] specifically with the group that’s going to start–Churchill Downs,” Beshear said. “They are going to start accepting horses and start accepting folks on the backside of the track on May 11. There will be no fans for racing, and I will tell you that this is one of the most detailed plans we have seen about specific security checks that everybody has to go through, [from] being temperature checked to masking for the limited group that is there.”

Churchill’s proposed plan still has to be officially approved by the state. Beshear said that by May 4, he expects the state to sign off on all of the protocols for the businesses that will be allowed to open on May 11, “so everybody will have a week to get ready.”

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