Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs' announcement that it has been approved for fans at the Kentucky Derby has some in the sports world seeing a finish line to empty stadiums for sporting events.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The last sporting event I covered was the University of Louisville men's basketball loss at Virginia, in Charlottesville on March 7. Since then, it has been coronavirus commentary, Zoom news conferences and waiting.

The action, most definitely, has not been in the realm of sports, though the sports world hasn't been without news. The real action, though, has taken place in hospitals and city halls, on the streets, and at the ballot box.

When sports finally do return as a whole, they will have a great deal of competition. Some part of us will welcome them as a diversion. But after watching and living Reality TV for months, will they mean as much? Might they mean even more?

This column is an acknowledgement that we have changed during these past few months, or at least, that I have. Living with one eye on sports and one on the world has, I will admit, been a challenge.

Most mornings, I look at the blank screen, write a little on a sports topic, then am distracted by something happening in the real world, or a dozen somethings, and at the end of the day, the page hasn't been filled.

So this daily piece is an attempt to fill the page. Some days it will be completely sports. Some days, other things will move to the front. Every day, it will be an honest account. One of my heroes in writing is E.B. White, who famously left New York City for a saltwater farm in Maine, and wrote a monthly column for Harper's magazine and The New Yorker.

These columns, collected in the book "One Man's Meat," told of his life on the farm, but occasionally strayed, usually encompassing three sections, loosely tied together. Sometimes the main thing tying them together was him. I'm no E.B. White. And I haven't run off to the farm. But all of us have been holed up in a different way, and wander out now to find a world changed, and still changing. We might as well take a look at it. And I might as well do it here.

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As the rest of the sports world grapples with how to just get itself up and running in the midst of climbing COVID-19 case counts, the announcement that the Kentucky Derby will be run with fans in early September comes as something of an outlier.

When word came down that Louisville's St. James Art Fair would be canceled in October, many wondered how it could be canceled and the Derby still proceed with plans for fans.

There's a reason Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear hasn't committed to a number for the first Saturday in May, and the main reason is that nobody knows what, if anything, will be a responsible number.

Still, many people who think there's no way to put fans in the stands at the Derby seem to be forgetting just how large a venue we're talking about. If your main experience with Churchill Downs is during Derby week, I can understand that. But if you've been there for a regular day of racing, or a weekend day with a decent crowd, you know well, you can have 20,000 people there and still find a place of your own in the grandstand.

I'm not sure how all of it will work. I was surprised they sold a plan to the governor that would allow fans into the infield. I was surprised when they said they plan to offer betting at the windows, even in a scaled back way.

But even the idea of a Derby with fans has given hope to many in sports that things can begin to show life by fall.

Mitch Barnhart, athletic director at the University of Kentucky, said Monday, "I think that was tremendous. It was great news that we took a step to allowing fans to venues and that was great but obviously each venue is different and sporting events are different. You've seen a lot of club baseball, club softball, little league sports have begun to come back and play and people are gathering so that will be things we will keep an eye on and continue to watch. But we're absolutely in conversation with all the folks that need to be in the decision-making process to bring fans back to Kroger Field."

No decision has been made. In the meantime, if you'd like to help spur sports along in the fall, there is one thing you can do. Wear a mask when out in public.

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In Kentucky, it's election day, all over again. The final mail-in ballots are being tabulated in Jefferson and Fayette counties on Tuesday morning, with the results of voting that ended last Tuesday expected at least by 6 p.m. but perhaps as early as noon.

The waiting has been different, but the election itself -- though born of necessity and coronavirus precaution -- should be a model moving forward. There's no reason in 2020 that elections in the U.S. should be limited to a single day. There's no reason voters shouldn't have a mail-in option.

Kentuckians are most interested to learn who will be running against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the fall. Amy McGrath, the well-funded Democratic front-runner, has a slight edge in balloting so far over Louisville State Senator Charles Booker, whose late surge could wind up in historic victory.

Politics are fascinating. Had the election been on its originally scheduled date, May 19, the Democratic primary likely would've been no contest. But Gov. Beshear postponed the election in March, and on May 25, a Milwaukee police officer killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck in a public street for more than eight minutes. And reaction to that has changed the world.

People are tired of it -- and not just Black people, for once. And Booker, who has spoken eloquently to the situation while connecting with people in the streets and those watching on television frustrated with the slow pace of disposition of another police killing -- of Breonna Tayloer in Louisville -- has emerged.

So a campaign that got new life because of the COVID calendar now will also wait to see if it can overcome one facet of that calendar -- early voting.

Regardless, Booker has emerged as a formidable voice in the state's democratic leadership, at a time when new voices are needed.

And, in the process, Kentuckians finally got a scoreboard to watch, once again. It just isn't in sports.

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