I participate in a group called “Thoroughbred Horse Racing Discussion” on Facebook and I conduct polls with a large sampling rate. On Mar. 20, I put up a poll responded to by 176 people–a statistically significant pool of people very interested in the horse racing industry. Of these, 113 supported the current plan to have the Kentucky Derby Sept. 5. Only 40 supported having the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, but without a live audience, as the Louisiana Derby was run last Saturday. Two people said the Kentucky Derby should be kept on the first Saturday of May, with an audience, and one had no opinion.
But to the point of Dan Liebman’s letter of today, entitled, “A Year Without Derby Makes Most Sense,” only 20 people of the 176 people that voted, a minuscule 12%, favored completely cancelling the Kentucky Derby. In another poll started Mar. 17, 139 people said it was good to move the Kentucky Derby to Sept. 5, 65 said they should not have postponed it, but it should have been audience free, 46 people said that it was good to postpone it, but that it was postponed for too much time, and four had no opinion.
Of historical note, the Belmont S. was not run in 1911 and 1912 due to the Hart-Agnew Law that outlawed horse racing gambling. The Preakness was not run in 1891, 1892 and 1893. The Preakness ran 15 times in New York at Gravesend, New York for 14 years and at Morris Park in New York one year prior. But unlike the Preakness and Belmont, the Kentucky Derby has always been run, and now Dan Liebman would like this to be the first year not to have a Kentucky Derby.
In fact, the dates, locations, and distances have varied. From 1890 until 1925, 35 five years, the Belmont was run at less than 12 furlongs. The Belmont was not run at Belmont until 1910 when Sweep won it. It used to be held at Jerome from 1867-1889, and at Morris Park from 1890 until 1904. Belmont didn’t open its doors until 1905. The race was named after the man, not the racetrack.
From 1875 until 1895, a span of two decades, the Kentucky Derby was 1 1/2 miles as it was modeled on the English Derby which is at that distance. When Gallant Fox took the Triple Crown, he won the Preakness first on Friday, May 9th. On May 17, 1930 the third Saturday in May, Gallant Fox won the Kentucky Derby. Gallant Fox won the Belmont June 7.
1945 is especially instructive. Hoop Jr. won the Kentucky Derby on June 9, 1945 in a race that almost didn’t happen because of World War II. There was a ban on horse racing from January 1945 to early May on V-E Day. The Kentucky Derby was rescheduled to June 9 when the ban was lifted. The Preakness was run a week later on June 16 and won by Polynesian (Native Dancer’s sire) and Hoop Jr. came in second. The Belmont was run Saturday, June 23, 1945 and was won by Champion 2-year-old Pavot.
So too with the English Triple Crown. Because of World War I, the Derby was run at Newmarket and not Epsom Downs during 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918. What happened during those years? In 1915, Pommern won the English Triple Crown. In 1916, the filly Fifinella won the English Derby and English Oaks and was the last time a horse took both races. And then Gay Crusader won the English Triple Crown in 1917 and Gainsborough in 1918. In fact, the St. Leger, which is usually ran at Doncaster, was also run at Newmarket. Could you put an asterisk next to these wins? I suppose. But our history is greater because they ran these races.
Under Mr. Liebman’s approach, these races would not have been run, and that would have been a mistake then, and a mistake now. A Derby and St. Leger in Newmarket is better than no Derby and St. Leger at all. A Preakness in New York is better than no Preakness at all. A Kentucky Derby in June because of World War II is better than no Kentucky Derby. And a Kentucky Derby in September because of the coronavirus is better than none at all, whatever asterisk needs to be put on that accomplishment.
The real debate, in my estimate, was whether to have the Kentucky Derby on its normal date without an audience, or postpone it to September, or some earlier date. I agree with Churchill Downs, that they should shoot for Sept. 5 with an audience. Those that I polled overwhelmingly agreed.
Rinaldo Del Gallo, III