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CRAWFORD | At this Kentucky Derby, the race belongs not to the swift, but to the smart

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Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day, 2020.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The headline is that the Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5 will have fans in attendance. Good. It should. It would not be the Derby without fans there. A quick glance at Saturday’s Belmont Stakes confirms it. Gladness over live racing quickly gave way to gloom as Frank Sinatra’s recorded voice boomed out “New York, New York.”

They should’ve played, “My Melancholy Baby.”

At least under the current plans, there will be people on the premises at the call to post. They’ll be spread out. But they will be there. Think, Breeders’ Cup crowd but a little smaller, perhaps.

The question, of course, is how many people will be at the Derby? It’s a question that Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery could not answer on Thursday. It’s a question that Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and his state health officials have not yet answered.

And the other question, of course, is should Churchill Downs allow fans at all? Not only is the daily number of new cases in the U.S. at record levels, but the percentage of positive cases is rising, though that isn’t the whole story.

Let’s take the questions in order.

How many fans will be allowed? Let’s assume that because of Churchill’s massive size (1.6 million square feet, nearly 200 acres), it may mathematically be able to handle a large number of people and yet still be able to have more people in one place than state officials feel is safe.

Churchill says the only general admission tickets sold will be to the infield. That is 26 acres of space. An acre is 43,560 square feet. To give each person 6 feet on all sides would mean 1,210 people per acre. But let’s say the state wants to be more conservative, knowing that people in the infield won’t just stand still. Let’s say you make the calculation of 8 feet per person. That would be a crowd of about 17,600. Round it up to 20,000 to make the math easier (I majored in English).

The grandstand holds 65,000 or so, with more space under the roof. There will be no traveling from the infield to the frontside allowed. No standing tickets will be sold. The only tickets are for seats. At 33 percent capacity, that would mean maybe 22,000 seats.

We’re looking at a crowd of around 42,000. On Twitter, I put the over/under at 45,000. And we all know you can take everything on Twitter to the bank.

Even at that, you’d have far more elbow room in the stands than on the track with a 20-horse field. For once.

Churchill Downs

A sign lists minutes to post for a 2020 Kentucky Derby that was postponed.

There’s not much question that it can be done, especially if people will follow rules, wear masks, adhere to social distancing, wash hands, be smart.

Smart, however, has not characterized this nation’s response to this virus.

Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery said that he is “trusting that people will be as responsible as possible.”

Yes, Flanery has been to the Derby before. He knows what it looks like. Responsible isn’t the first word that comes to mind. He also knows that this is a different time. And that Churchill Downs is a different place. It is a sprawling complex, not like the U.S. Open for tennis, nor golf courses where galleries follow golfers and line fairways and tee boxes.

Track officials can envision a checkerboard layout of boxes sold in the grandstand, with the crush of people in concourses and paddock non-existent.

So here’s the question: Should Churchill attempt this, given the current climate?

It should be clear by now, no matter what decision a state or sports body makes, it will be subject to instant ridicule and allegations of irresponsibility. Cancel your event or refuse to allow fans and you’re giving in to fear. Hold your event and allow fans and you’re part of the problem.

There’s so much about the novel coronavirus that we still don’t know – even after five months. And for that reason alone, caution should rule.

Kevin Flanery Churchill Downs president

Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs, says the track is looking forward to returning to racing after a COVID-19 shutdown.

I also know this – if any state in the country has acted responsibly during this pandemic, it is Kentucky.

Earlier this week, the national media climbed up on its high horse to condemn the state’s election – reworked because of COVID-19 concerns -- as an example of voter suppression because Louisville had only one polling place open on election day. That’s after it allowed mail-in voting for all citizens for two months, kept one in-person polling place in Old Louisville open for two weeks and a second one, the main voting location at the state fairgrounds, open for a week. Transportation to the polls was free. State officials from both parties did everything but go door to door with ballots in their hands.

And by all appearances it worked. Turnout was heavy. We’ll see what the health impact was, but the vast majority of people wore masks. The massive facility made for easy social distancing. The dire predictions of disaster were like so many bad Derby picks. Yes, it could have been better. Ideally, all polling places would’ve been open. The point is that these aren’t ideal conditions. You do the best you can.

Allowing a limited number of fans into the Kentucky Derby is not South Carolina opening its beaches when numbers were still rising. It is not Florida, Texas and Arizona throwing their states wide open before they had the virus under control.

Kentucky’s retransmission rate, according to a New York Times story this week, is among the six lowest in the nation. Even as testing has ramped up impressively, our number of cases has remained flat. Over the past two months, Kentucky has had just 94 deaths outside of long-term care facilities, where 72 percent of the state’s COVID deaths have occurred in that time.

How much the state’s gradual reopening will lead to more cases and deaths in the coming weeks will be a major determinant in how much the Derby is opened up for fans.

But that effort is not equivalent to the rash opening that other states have tried. It is an effort at controlling a large-scale sporting event, with greatly reduced numbers, in a large open-air facility, with well-considered precautions in place.

There’s still a great deal we don’t know about this virus, but one thing we ought to know by now – we have to learn to live with it. There has to be a way. The American public will not accept and cannot afford another shutdown.

So far, living with the virus is a test we are failing. We are failing not because of a poor medical system. We are failing because we refuse to take the simplest precautions, and because our national leadership is failing to get behind the effort.

Whether this Derby is a success or a cautionary tale will depend on the smallest of details: Wearing a mask, maintaining social distance, following hygiene guidelines and, most of all, if you’re at risk, staying away, for goodness sake.

For everyone else, it’s time to accept the limitations that this virus is going to place on life for however long it lasts, or until there’s a ready treatment or vaccine, and begin to live in such a way that we are part of the solution, acting in the best interests of the entire community and our own health.

The Kentucky Derby can be a success story if everyone is smart and considerate. The biggest question of all is this: What are the odds that most people will be?

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