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CRAWFORD | Riders up! Kentucky Derby's spring renewal signals long-awaited restart

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Kentucky Derby week has arrived, and in the Bluegrass State, we have been waiting for the starting gates to swing open.

It feels like it’s time. We have endured a long pandemic winter. A year ago, we shelved our spring spectacle as the COVID-19 threat mounted. We held our tickets in the hope that we could celebrate in the fall.

Yes, we did have a Kentucky Derby – but those May to September flings never work out. It wasn’t the same. Only owners and some connections were allowed into the track. And more than ever, it became evident that so much of what makes the race special is the people who are there to celebrate it.

On the first Saturday this May, they won’t all be back. Churchill Downs will welcome a reduced-capacity crowd of perhaps 40,000. Pandemic restrictions will remain in place.

But you could feel, on Opening Night at Churchill Downs Saturday, people are ready to be back. They came in their fancy clothes and fascinators, they stood in lines, they snapped pictures in front of the Secretariat statue. There weren’t as many of them, but they still lined the paddock fence as the horses came through.

People are ready to feel normal again. And on the backside of Churchill Downs in the past week, they have – even if the crowds even there are not what they were in a normal year.

“Horsemen aren’t real good with change,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “We’re just not. It’s a true blessing to have everything when you expect it to be.”

A curious thing happened last week in Louisville. On Wednesday, a snowstorm left 1.8 inches of fluffy powder on the ground. At Churchill Downs, the record snow for that date gently settled onto the grassy areas and the roof of the racetrack, covering the spires, and leaving the racetrack saturated. Trainers shook their heads, grinned and plodded ahead. If the past year has taught nothing, it has taught us to roll with the punches.

And for many, the punches have been difficult. We have lived with death, and the threat of death, and disease. I saw Jody Demling on the rail. He was in a hospital, on a ventilator. Later, there was Tim Sullivan of The Courier-Journal. It took him several weeks to shake COVID. D. Wayne Lukas was on the track on his pony, in a heavy coat and helmet. COVID threw him for a loop. We have lived with this, and we are still living with it, in our masks and memory.

But two days later, for 15 minutes or so, there came another surprise. A sky so orange and pink that exercise riders could be seen all turning their heads to the East. And those of us with cameras began to ignore everything else.

With that brief artistic nod from above, the buzz started to build. This may not be a normal Derby, but it will be the most normal large-scale thing we’ve done in these parts in more than a year. And that’s all right.

The morning line favorite in this year’s Derby is expected to be unbeaten 2-year-old champion named Essential Quality. It is generally acknowledged to be as wide-open a Derby as we have seen in years.

But one winner on Derby Day should be normalcy itself.

Churchill Downs announced its Opening Night crowd as 11,505 on Saturday. It felt like more. This coming Saturday, the grandstands will host several times that many, with thousands more in the infield. And that’s all right, too.

When the call is given for “Riders up,” it is all of us who will be summoned. It’s time to get moving. We won’t abandon the safety precautions that are necessary in this time, but in this city, the bell will ring, and the gates will swing open. The call to post is a call to purpose, to resume this grand festival, to see each other, to come into the sunrise and celebrate.

We come with resolution to see the race through to the finish, to reclaim the first Saturday in May as Kentucky’s celebration, completely restored.

Until then, this year in Kentucky, the Derby returns, cautious but colorful, ready to trumpet the message: We are getting through this. We are getting through this together.

Welcome to Kentucky Derby week.

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