Over two months before the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs got the green light from Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear on Wednesday to allow a to-be-determined limited number of spectators on the grounds for Derby week Sept. 1-5.
While racing fans in New York continue to wait for word on whether spectators will be allowed at Saratoga Race Course this summer, Churchill Downs will spend the next two-plus months refining plans to let people through the doors under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and state public health officials to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
The Derby has been rescheduled from May 2 to Sept. 5, capping a week in which spectators will have access to the infield, clubhouse and grandstand.
Churchill Downs Inc. relies heavily on revenue from that week each year. The Derby typically draws a crowd of 150,000, of which permanent seating accounts for 60,000.
“We have two months until the Kentucky Derby is here,” track president Kevin Flanery said during a press conference outside the Kentucky Derby Museum on the track grounds Thursday. “It’s been a very difficult situation for everyone, around the world. It’s a unique situation. It hasn’t happened in over a hundred years. So we’ve been working with public health officials. The plans we put in place are looking at CDC guidelines, working directly with state and public health officials to make sure the protocols we have in place are best-in-practice.”
He didn’t supply any numbers, but capacity reductions designed to limit overall crowd density will be in place for general admission, outdoor reserved seating and premium dining and suites.
The general admission tickets will only grant access to the infield.
All spectators will be encouraged to wear face masks unless seated in their reserved seat, to frequently wash or sanitize hands and socially distance themselves from others.
Flanery said there will be no paper ticketing, as fans will be required to gain admission through mobile phone ticketing.
“In the three months since we announced moving the Derby, every day it seems like something’s different, something’s changing,” he said. “And we’ve tried to be very nimble. We will adjust to the facts as they are in the moment. And then we have to make plans. We have to look forward and say what do we want to accomplish in two months. How do we bring people to the track in a safe and effective way and be respectful of what’s happening?
“I think over the last few months that we’ve all become accustomed to queue lines, to stanchions, to being socially distanced and trying to be respectful of one another. With regard to food and beverage, we won’t have chefs tables. We’ll have some wonderful food, but it’ll be delivered differently. The same thing with betting. We will spread out the mutuel tellers and queue them as well.”
Flanery said Churchill Downs has 26 acres of space on the infield and 1.6 million square feet under roof on the front side. No one but essential personnel will be allowed in the barn area, a policy that is already in place.
Churchill Downs will bolster its WiFi network to make betting on personal devices smooth and efficient.
“It’s going to be a different experience,” Flanery said. “It’s a different year. If you think about the Derby experience, I always say it’s not just a two-minute race. That experience begins long before you get to the racetrack.
“We really are a very unique event. We’re a unique facility. We don’t fit into the mold of an arena or a golf course. That gives us some flexibility and the opportunity to work on those issues.”
Lone Star Park in Texas has been allowing fans on the grounds, and Delaware Park, which opened on June 17, started with a cap of 3,000 that on Tuesday was reduced to 1,000, 500 of which are allowed in the clubhouse and grandstand on a first-come, first-served basis.
On Monday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced that racetracks in his state could re-open on July 2 and would be allowed to admit 25% capacity. Monmouth Park president Dennis Drazin, whose track is scheduled to open on July 3, said he expects Monmouth to be able accommodate 15,000, based on the 60,000 who showed up for American Pharoah’s Haskell Invitational victory in 2015.
Ellis Park, the small track in Henderson, Kentucky, on the outskirts of Evansville, Indiana, will open on July 2 and will be allowed to admit fans at 50% capacity.
Spectators at Ellis Park will be limited to a few lounges and the turf club, which will amount to about 800 people.
The revised Keeneland meet in Lexington, Kentucky July 8-12 originally was to be held spectator-free, but on Friday the track announced that owners with horses running on any given card would be given six credentials if they’re entered in stakes races and four if they’re in races on the undercard.
The Saratoga meet is scheduled to run July 16-Sept. 7. The New York Racing Association has been in communication with state officials to determine whether there’s a way to allow for a limited number of spectators, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo has yet to approve large outdoor gatherings in New York.
The Kentucky Derby will represent the second leg of the Triple Crown instead of its traditional spot as the first. Tiz the Law won the Belmont Stakes last Saturday, and his connections, the Saratoga Springs-based Sackatoga Stable and trainer Barclay Tagg, plan to run Tiz the Law in the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 8, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness at Pimlico on Oct. 3.
Derby week also includes the Sept. 4 Kentucky Oaks, which also draws over 100,000 each year.
“We know a lot of people have had a lot of hurt during this crisis, and our hearts go out to them,” Flanery said. “But we also know that we have to take baby steps as a community to move forward and do something that lifts the spirits of this town and the world. And we’re going to do our part on both sides, to be safe and responsible, but also make that movement to get back to some sense of normalcy.”