After previously intending to run the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve before a crowd in attendance, Churchill Downs announced Aug. 21 that the Derby and the surrounding week of racing next month would be run without fans as a result of COVID-19.
Attendance for the Sept. 4 Longines Kentucky Oaks and the entire week of the Derby from Sept. 1-5 will also be without paid attendance and will be limited to only essential personnel and racing participants, the track said.
Churchill Downs did not specify Derby-week rules for horse owners.
The reversal came after the track announced Aug. 12 its intention to allow as many as 23,000 fans to attend the Derby under strict health protocols approved by Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. That tally represented further reductions from the track’s initial request approved in late June, after which Kentucky and much of the country experienced increases in COVID-19 cases as businesses reopened and safety measures related to the outbreak were eased.
The Derby follows a long list of sporting events this year that have barred fans from attendance as a safety measure. The Indianapolis 500, the historic automobile race, opted to not allow spectators in an announcement this month, as did The Masters, one of the major championships in professional golf. Those moves followed decisions by Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association to conduct games without fans.
“The Kentucky Derby is a time-honored American tradition which has always been about bringing people together. However, the health and safety of our team, fans, and participants is our highest concern,” Churchill Downs Inc. announced in a statement. “Churchill Downs has worked diligently over the last several months to plan a safe Derby with a limited number of spectators in attendance. We were confident in that plan but dedicated to remaining flexible using the best and most reliable information available. With the current significant increases in COVID-19 cases in Louisville as well as across the region, we needed to again revisit our planning. We have made the difficult decision to hold this year’s Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5 without fans. Churchill Downs and all of our team members feel strongly that it is our collective responsibility as citizens of Louisville to do all we responsibly can to protect the health, safety, and security of our community in these challenging times and believe that running the Derby without spectators is the best way to do that. We deeply regret the disappointment this will bring to our loyal fans.”
Churchill Downs and Beshear came under some criticism this month for moving ahead to allow fans at the Derby. Joseph Gerth, a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal, wrote that the track had placed profits over public health and that Beshear had rolled over in allowing Churchill to proceed.
Beshear’s initial approval of fans at the Derby was in contrast to other actions he has taken to combat the spread of COVID-19. He recommended Aug. 10 that schools in the state not reopen for in-school learning until Sept. 28, though some schools defied his recommendation and resumed classes.
In a statement that accompanied Churchill’s announcement, Beshear said Churchill Downs made the right decision to bar fans from the Derby.
“The virus is still aggressively spreading in Kentucky, and the White House has announced that Jefferson County and the City of Louisville are in a ‘red zone’ based on increases in cases. This week alone the county had more than 2,300 new cases,” he said. “I applaud Churchill Downs for continuing to monitor the virus and for making the right and responsible decision. I am asking all Kentuckians to take action to stop the spread of the virus so we can get back to the many traditions we enjoy, like the Kentucky Derby.”
The Derby and its supporting week of racing are lucrative for Churchill Downs and for the city and state, drawing travelers from all over the country. Louisville Tourism estimates the economic impact of Kentucky Derby season on the region at more than $400 million— though that would have been reduced this year had merely 23,000 attended the race.
Last year’s Derby attendance was 150,729, and attendance on the day of the Longines Kentucky Oaks, the Friday before the Derby, was 105,719.
This week, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said he would not attend the Derby, citing the continuing high number of COVID-19 cases and racial justice demonstrations expected in Louisville on Derby Day. The protests are in response to the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman fatally shot by Louisville police this year.
“This year’s Kentucky Derby was never going to be the celebration we’re used to, but I could not be more grateful to our tremendous team members and community partners for all of their efforts. We’ve left no stones unturned and reached the right decision,” said Bill Carstanjen, the CEO of CDI. “We hope our fans, the Louisville community, and our country find an opportunity over the coming weeks to reflect on the challenges we have faced this year as a community and as a nation, and work together toward a better and safer future.”