It’s been 75 years since the Kentucky Derby wasn’t held on the first Saturday in May. On St. Patrick’s Day 2020, the coronavirus outbreak responded with “hold my beer.”
Churchill Downs announced Tuesday that Kentucky Derby 146 will be moved from May 2 to Sept. 5, which is Labor Day weekend. In addition, the 146th Kentucky Oaks will be rescheduled from May 1 to Sept. 4.
In 1945, the race was run on June 9 after a ban on horse racing was lifted due to the end of World War II. Hoop Jr. won on a sloppy track with legendary Eddie Arcaro aboard in front of more than 65,000 fans.
“Throughout the rapid development of the COVID-19 pandemic, our first priority has been how to best protect the safety and health of our guests, team members and community,” Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said in a conference call. “As the situation evolved, we steadily made all necessary operational adjustments to provide the safest experience and environment.
"The most recent developments have led us to make some very difficult, but we believe, necessary decisions and our hearts are with those who have been or continue to be affected by this pandemic.”
The rescheduled Saturday is typically the first full Saturday of college football and likely will push the Triple Crown series into the fall. No announcements have been made by the Stronach Group (Preakness) or the New York Racing Association (Belmont Stakes) regarding timing of the two other classic races making up the Triple Crown series.
Churchill Downs officials said NBC is in the process of working out a schedule with the respective tracks that would move the Preakness and Belmont into the fall as well.
If the schedule follows the two-week and three-week traditional separation of races, that could mean the Preakness on Sept. 19 and the Belmont on Oct. 10. That would leave a month spacing before the Breeders’ Cup, scheduled for Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., on Nov. 6 and 7.
Points races on the current Road to the Kentucky Derby schedule will still count toward qualifying, including races yet to be run, but officials noted that new points races will be added. The next Derby qualifying race on the schedule is Saturday’s Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, which is still running races without fans or owners.
With the Derby moving to September, the whole racing schedule likely will be a fluid and changing situation. NYRA’s Saratoga meet is scheduled to start July 16, but has yet to release a stakes calendar. Its signature race, the Travers Stakes, is typically the last Saturday in August for 3-year-olds and will bump up against the Derby if it retains its traditional date. The more likely scenario would be to move it up to four weeks before as a new Derby qualifier.
The date avoids the opening of the NFL season, likely slated for Sept. 10, but could bump against the Masters, which has not released a reschedule date.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.