Kentucky Derby Day

Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery met with about 30 media members Saturday morning and said that even though the Kentucky Derby was delayed, it will be run in 2020. WDRB Photo/Rick Bozich

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The U.S. Open Tennis Tournament will proceed with its 2020 championships in New York City from Aug. 31-Sept 13.

There will be no spectators at an outdoor facility for the sport's signature U.S. event.

Too many health concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

On Monday, the P.G.A. of America announced its plan to proceed with golf's first major 2020 championship at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco Aug. 6-9.

That plan includes no spectators.

Horse racing's Triple Crown season started last Saturday at Belmont Park in New York City. Tiz The Law won in front of an empty outdoor grandstand.

Against that consistent backdrop of sports slowly returning with no or limited spectator availability, Churchill Downs and Kentucky made its announcement Thursday that perhaps tens of thousands of spectators will be welcomed for the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and Thurby the first week in September.

Write this down: The Kentucky Derby has positioned itself to become The Test Case.

We'll learn if a major sports event can be celebrated during this pandemic without substantial health setbacks to follow. Maybe the Derby becomes the game changer and major sports events can resume with fans included.

Look what Louisville can do. Fans of all sports will be rooting for the Derby.

Of course, here is the flip side: History will circle Churchill and the Derby as the event that did too much too soon.

We'll learn the name of the best 3-year-old early the evening of Sept. 5. 

We'll learn if the health risks were worthwhile over the weeks that follow.

This won't be the same as putting a few thousand people in a NASCAR track, soccer stadium or baseball park. 

International spotlight. Bigger legacy. Mammoth responsibility.

And considerable crowds, tasked with the serious job of reasonable, healthy behavior.

Can you do this Louisville? Churchill Downs believes that you can.

"We really are a unique event," Churchill president Kevin Flannery said at a press conference near the Barbaro statue outside the track Thursday morning.

"We don't fit into the mold or an arena or a golf course … We have a big facility. How do we use it in a responsible way?"

For all the talk about continuing the Derby tradition of running it every year, the economic impact for local businesses and the community spirit that Derby Week annually stirs, this year The Derby Story will be getting it done responsibly.

The safe route would have been to run it without spectators as other events and venues have chosen. To the list at the start of this column, add the English Premier League. It is playing soccer in empty stadiums.

Churchill and Kentucky are not doing that. Kentucky's Governor, Andy Beshear, has been praised for his prudent leadership since the pandemic shutdowns began in March. State government is extending trust to this community with this decision.

We'll be celebrated or criticized by how well we respond.

Expect to hear this word -- responsible -- as much as you'll hear about handicapping the Derby over the next 72 days. 

You know the checklist of responsible behavior. 

Wear a mask. Mandatory for Churchill workers. Recommended for fans. Not mandatory. Recommended.

Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.

Enter with electronic tickets. Remain in your ticketed area. Please.

Practice social distancing while in lines for concessions, the restroom and other activities. Bet by phone if you can.

"We know people have had a lot of hesitation," Flannery said. "We also know that we have to take baby steps."

Flannery said the track has not determined the number of spectators it will allow yet. Maybe 20,000 across the 26-acre infield? Maybe one-third capacity in a grandstand that seats around 60,000?

That's asking for a lot of responsible behavior -- and past performance charts show that responsible behavior has never been the calling card of the infield.

To all those items, I'd add that people who are uncomfortable with the risks associated with the virus have another option: 

They can stay home. They can avoid the crowds, the inevitable lapses in social distancing and the folks who will remove their masks or simply refuse to wear them.

But don't forget stories like this: The trainer of the likely Kentucky Derby favorite is Barclay Tagg. He is 82 years old, solidly in at-risk groups for the virus.

Tagg needs to be there, and, if he wants, to remain as safe as possible Derby Week.

Good luck keeping the world six or more feet away from Tagg, getting him safely through the grandstand and navigating other risks. Tagg will be just one of many Derby visitors to follow.

"We want to do something unique and special as we move forward," Flannery said.

Normally the eyes of the sports world turn to Louisville on the first Saturday of May to discover the fastest 3-year-old horse.

This year the world will turn to Louisville for the first week of September to discover if Churchill and Kentucky can get this right and deliver a Kentucky Derby to remember.

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