LOUISVILLE, Ky. – In September, the Kentucky Derby will be played for the 146th consecutive year. And, in a noteworthy development on Thursday, for the 146th consecutive year, there will be fans at Churchill Downs watching (and betting) the race. In the process, America’s most famous race track has emerged as a flashpoint in our nation’s ongoing COVID-19 culture war.
Under a Louisville blue sky, Churchill President Kevin Flanery removed a mask and said at a media meeting that the track plans to open its doors to tens of thousands of customers on September 5. The crowd will be much smaller than the usual 150,000 ish that fills the place on the first Saturday in May, but as of now they can still sell 50-75,000 tickets, notably including general admission passes in the box. If it happens, this could be the largest collection of humanity in the United States in one place since the nation closed in the face of a pandemic in March.
And this will be the Derby debate, a distillation of the same debate that breaks out everywhere: staying home in the face of mass gatherings; respect the virus vs. do what you want; care and concern versus partying in the United States; this is serious vs. this is exaggerated; blue vs. Red. One of the great elements of American sport is to provide a timely window to America’s troubled soul.
Expected questions: Does your mask match your hat? Do they come in seersucker? Will you bother with one?
The time of the announcement was a display of bravado from the damned torpedoes or a failure to read the room, or, perhaps more accurately, a failure to read the headlines. The previous day, the United States recorded the highest number of COVID-19 cases to date, about 36,880 of them. Hospitalizations have increased in some critical states.
Health experts nationally and internationally have been appalled at the country’s apparent loss of interest in stopping the spread of a disease that has killed more than 120,000 people in the United States alone. Others shrug and say the odds are in our favor when it comes to serious illness or death, so keep going.
The rest of the sports arena moves much more cautiously when it comes to fans in the stands. The NBA, NHL, and MLB will play without them, and without some of their own athletes, who have chosen not to participate. The same with professional golf and tennis. The NFL and college football are preparing plans to play in front of small crowds, but they will face it in white from now until the start.
Churchill? Let the turnstiles rotate.
“We don’t fit the mold of a sand or a golf course,” said Flanery. “That gives us flexibility.”
Without a doubt, Churchill is a great building with the ability (in theory) to responsibly distance its customers. The interior field is 26 acres, and the rest of the property covers 190 more. Flanery promoted 1.6 million square feet of space.
There are approximately 60,000 reserved seats in the clubhouse, almost all of which have already been purchased. (Some for the express purpose of reselling, in what is traditionally a robust and chaotic aftermarket.) Churchill officials are in the process of contacting ticket holders to find out who intends to come and who stays in. House. The puzzle will be rebuilt from there.
Sources counted Illustrated Sports that the probable seating arrangement in the scores for the box seats on the first and third floors is a checkerboard pattern: one box of six is full, the next box is empty, and so on. The real question will be who gets the precious boxes on the third floor near the finish line, and which of those box owners move to create space.
It’s worth keeping in mind with Churchill’s most elegant cashier seats and areas – many of the ticket holders are older. Some of them much older. What is your appetite for dealing with a large crowd in a poorly controlled environment?
The other 90,000-100,000 Derby customers in a typical year are general admission buyers. Even cutting that number in half or more presents a scenario that would have Dr. Fauci rolling his eyes. By opening the infield, Churchill is basically inviting into a scene that might not be much different from the infamous Lake of the Ozarks party over Memorial Day weekend. Social distancing can be requested, but good luck enforcing it with a crowd that tends to be young, impulsive, and highly drunk.
Churchill said customers are encouraged to wear masks, but will not be required. Don’t expect to see many. Drinking, eating, and smoking cigarettes – three tried and true Derby activities – are not done with masks. Unmasked trips to the betting windows also cause problems in terms of online distancing and hard-hitting bets on the faces of mutual employees. (To that end, Flanery said that players will be encouraged to gamble online via their phones, and the track is in the process of reinforcing a Wi-Fi network that invariably gets stuck on days when more than 100,000 people are on the track).
All of these plans are being established within the context of a virus that is spiraling out of control in the United States. While the numbers are low in Kentucky (less than 15,000 cases and 564 deaths, as of Thursday morning), much of a typical Derby crowd comes from out of state. Transporting them, gathering them in a number of 50,000 or more, and then dispersing again is asking for a peak. Hopefully it is not fatal.
The Derby is set to be the climax of an ambitious week back to sport in Kentucky. On Wednesday, September 2, Louisville will open its soccer season (with an undetermined number of fans at the stadium) against the state of North Carolina. On Thursday, September 3, Kentucky opens its season (with the same fan situation) against eastern Michigan. Friday, September 4 will be the second biggest day of racing of the year at Churchill, Kentucky Oaks, and you better believe they’ll be selling tickets for that, too. Then that Saturday will be an event of undeniable cultural and economic importance to the community.
Will it all happen? At the end of June, everything is ready. Will it be a health disaster? Or a step back towards normality? Come back in October.
We know this: In a sports sanctuary that was built, sustained, and expanded by betting, this may be Churchill Downs’ biggest bet.