LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The 147th Kentucky Derby went off under picturesque weather in Louisville, though only about a third of the normal crowd enjoyed it in person.
Churchill Downs said in April that as many as 48,000 will attend the Run for the Roses because of capacity reductions amid the pandemic. On Saturday, the historic racetrack welcomed 51,838 spectators, according to a tweet from spokesman Darren Rogers.
The Derby normally hosts about 150,000 people and has had as many as 170,513 in 2015. In 2020, the race was delayed to September and run with no fans in attendance.
Under a plan approved by Gov. Andy Beshear, Churchill Downs had limited reserved seating to 40% or 50% of normal capacity depending on the section. General admission tickets for the infield were limited to 30% of its capacity.
WELCOME TO THE TRACK! This is the view as fans start funneling into @ChurchillDowns. I am LOVING this lady’s enthusiasm. She’s greeting every group on their way in, asking about coronavirus symptoms, and offering masks to anyone who needs it. #KYDerby @WDRBNews pic.twitter.com/dQF8yfQmQf— Katrina Helmer (@KatrinaWDRB) May 1, 2021
Masks were required, with track personnel roving around holding signs reminding people of the mandate. Temperature screens were required upon entry.
Guests could no longer move freely between the infield and the areas accessible to ticketholders with seats, such as the paddock.
And ticketed patrons were sold "all-inclusive" packages to cut down on crowding at food and beverage stands.
"This change allows us to improve our guests’ experience by reducing the amount of time spent in line, eliminating the need for cash transactions for food and beverages and providing the opportunity to try a greater variety of food," the company said.
Churchill Downs said attendees were "advised to practice appropriate social distancing from other guests," though there was little adherence to that advice amid the high-school and college-aged crowd in the infield at Friday’s Kentucky Oaks.
The spirit of the Kentucky Derby ignited again inside Churchill Downs with fans excited to return.
"It's the ambiance. It's the essence of the whole experience of Churchill and the Derby," said Angelo Polk of Louisville, returning for his second Derby. "This is what we came here for. It's exciting."
While the stands weren't full, the Derby fashion returned in full force. With a top hat featuring a horse, a loud suit and a long, pink beard, Garey Faulkner from Cincinnatti was making a Derby fashion statement.
"I throw it all together, and pray and hope it comes together, and this time it did," he said of his homemade outfit.
Trackgoers said they were able to find the silver lining in a slightly different experience.
"This year, it's COVID, so there's less people. But you have more room," said Michelle Cattoor of Iowa. "You can actually go try different things, try different food options, get photos with things. But I think everyone's just here to have fun."
Returning to the track amid the pandemic was an emotional sight for some horse racing fans.
"As a Kentucky man, it means like pretty much everything to me," said Matt Mullins. "If I get a little teary-eyed when they sing My Old Kentucky Home, don't hold it against me. It does mean everything to me to be here."