LEXINGTON, Ky. - There will not be any fans at this year's Kentucky Derby after all.
After previously announcing that up to 23,000 fans would be allowed to attend the world's most famous race, Churchill Downs switched gears Friday by announcing that the Sept. 5 race will be run without spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"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," the track said in a press release on Friday. "We deeply regret the disappointment this will bring to our loyal fans."
It will be the first time in the history of the race that it has not been run in front of spectators. Churchill said the decision came with the support of Gov. Andy Beshear.
"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," Beshear said in the statement. "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."
Churchill cited COVID-19 positivity rates that had risen from as low as 2% in June to 10% in recent days, according to data provided by Norton Healthcare.
"This is a critical point in time for our community," said Russell F. Cox, president and CEO of Norton Healthcare. "This remains a very fluid situation and every event should be evaluated based on the data available as close to the date of the event as possible. We appreciate and support Churchill Downs' decision."
For just the second time in the history of the race - the first being during World War II - the Derby was postponed from its traditional date of the first Saturday in May. Churchill opted to move the race from May 2 to Sept. 5 in hopes that the virus would be under control and fans could attend this year's 146th running. Churchill had gained permission from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to hold live racing from Sept. 1 through Sept. 5, including the Kentucky Oaks on Sept. 4.
On Aug. 12, the track announced that it would limit attendance to 23,000. Now, Churchill Downs says that only essential personnel and participants will be permitted on the property for the live races during those five days.
"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, CEO of Churchill Downs Inc. "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."
Other major sporting events to be held this fall have also announced they would do so without fans. That includes the Indianapolis 500 on Aug. 23, the U.S. Open tennis tournament from Aug. 31 through Sept. 13 in New York and the Masters golf tournament from Nov. 12 through Nov. 15 in Augusta, Ga.
Various SEC schools have announced plans for limited attendance at home football games, but the start of the league's 2020 football season has been delayed until Sept. 26.
Churchill Downs said ticket-holders for all Derby week race dates and related programming, including Dawn at the Downs, will be automatically issued a refund. NBC will televise the Derby and the day's undercard racing from 2:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 5. The NBC Sports Network will televise the Kentucky Oaks on Sept. 4 from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. ET.
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