Kentucky Derby Rescheduled for Sept. 5; No Dates Set for Preakness, Belmont

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Churchill Downs | Coady

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The GI Kentucky Derby has been moved from May 2 to Sept. 5 as a result of the coronavirus, Churchill Downs officials announced Tuesday.

“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,” Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said in a statement. “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.”

In the aftermath of Churchill’s decision, The Stronach Group, owners of Pimlico, and NYRA released statements saying that the dates of the GI Preakness S. and the GI Belmont S. remained up in the air.

The Kentucky Derby has traditionally been run on the first Saturday in May. It had been run on that date every year since 1945, when it was pushed back to June 9 due to World War II. With the cornovirus crisis escalating by the day, it became apparent that there was virtually no way the Derby could be held May 2, at least with fans allowed to attend. Prior to Tuesday’s announcement, it seemed inevitable that Churchill would move the race.

“As the situation evolved, we steadily made all necessary operational adjustments to provide the safest experience and environment,” Carstanjen said. “The most recent developments have led us to make some very difficult, but we believe, necessary decisions and our hearts are with those who have been or continue to be affected by this pandemic.”

No American trainer figures to be more affected by the postponement of the Derby than Bob Baffert, who has at least three strong candidates for the race and must now figure out how to keep them in top form through the first week in September and where to race them. He has won the Derby five times.

“It is what it is,” Baffert said via text. “I’m more worried about what’s going on in America. Scary times.”

Carstanjen said that the decision to hold the Derby Sept. 5 was based on a limited number of competing sporting events on the day, talks with NBC and the availability of hotel rooms in the area.

By moving the race ahead by four months, Churchill Downs has bought itself time, but that doesn’t mean the race is guaranteed to be held Sept. 5. While everyone is hoping that life is back to normal by then, it’s quite possible that COVID-19 is still wreaking havoc in early September.

“We’re going to respond to real time information,” Churchill President Kevin Flannery said. “Right now, what we believe and what we’ve come to understand is that the September time frame should work. If circumstances change, we will respond. We will be resilient and will move forward responsibly.”

The Kentucky racing dates in early September belong to Ellis Park, but officials of that track have said they will now end their meet Aug. 30. It is unclear what Derby Week will look like at Churchill and which stakes traditionally held that week will remain on the schedule. Churchill did commit to running the GI Kentucky Oaks Sept. 4.

Moving the date of the Derby has upended the carefully crafted plans of trainers who have been campaigning in the major prep races with an eye on having their horses peak May 2. Now, none can be certain if their horses will still be in training come September and the path to a September Kentucky Derby is something no American horse trainer has ever had to navigate. There is no blueprint. But others echoed the sentiments of Baffert, saying that the date of a horse races pales in comparison to the national crisis that is ongoing.

“What is the Derby compared to what is happening in our country and in the world,” asked trainer Patrick Biancone, who has two Derby hopefuls in Ete Indien (Summer Front) and Sole Volante (Karakontie {Jpn}). “Nothing. It’s just a sporting event. What is important to me is that everyone does their best to get rid of this really bad situation with the virus. Then, we can talk about racing. We will all do the best by our horses, but for now racing is a small thing compared to what is happening in the world.”

Horses qualify for the Derby, which is limited to 20 starters, by accruing points in prep races. Churchill said that it will work on a new points schedule that will include races traditionally run after the Derby. Another unresolved question is the status of the spring meet, which was scheduled to run from Apr. 28 through June 27. Keeneland has cancelled its spring racing meet, which, ordinarily, precedes the Churchill spring meet.

With Churchill having found a spot on the calendar the next dominoes to fall will likely be the dates for the Preakness and Belmont. It would be highly unlikely if either were held as scheduled. The Preakness is set to be run May 16 and the Belmont has been scheduled for June 6. Statements released by management at both Pimlico and Belmont did little to clear up the situation.

“Our first priority in these difficult times is the health and welfare of our industry participants and the public at large,” The Stronach Group announced. “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 S. While we are mindful of the challenges these times present, we also know that events like the Preakness S. 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.”

“NYRA is working closely with all appropriate parties, including media rights holder NBC Sports, to make a determination about the timing of the 2020 Belmont S.,” NYRA President and COO David O’Rourke said. “As the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend American life, decisions about large-scale public events must prioritize public health and safety above all else. NYRA will deliver an announcement only when that process has concluded to the satisfaction of state and local health departments. The Belmont S. is a New York institution with wide-reaching economic impact. We look forward to its 152nd edition in 2020.”

In the meantime, Churchill executives admit this will be a Kentucky Derby like no other, but they remain confident that it can live up to the pageantry and thrills of a normal Derby.

“We feel confident that we are going to run the Kentucky Derby, and we are going to run it with a crowd,” Carstanjen said. “The Kentucky Derby is a participatory event. Its energy and its magic really comes from everybody participating and being there to enjoy it. So we’re going to make it happen. This race has happened 145 years in a row. It’s going to happen 146. We’ll roll with the punches, but we feel very, very good that September’s the right date.”

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