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Sports: COVID-19 challenges the Kentucky Derby

By John Rolfe

The 2019 Kentucky Derby drew 150,729 fans to famed Churchill Downs

As major sports approach their starting gates, I hope something spurs my enthusiasm. Unlike folks who’ve suffered acute withdrawal during the pandemic, I haven’t longed for games to watch or athletes to curse. Three decades in sports journalism sated my appetite for all but the New York Giants, who have been doing their woeful best to put me off my feed.

I must confess that the thought of games without fans in the stands makes me wonder, “Why not just play out a season on a video game and broadcast that?” With no roar of the crowd or crude chants, sports feel like a clinical exercise in results, but the human need for entertainment and revenue prevails.

My jaundiced athletic torpor is such that I was shocked to learn that some sports, particularly horse racing, have already been going it alone, so to speak, during the pandemic and that the Belmont Stakes was run on June 20 with the grandstand empty. Photos of it drove home how times have changed for the Sport of Kings.

Tiz the Law won the 2020 Belmont Stakes in a crowdless race

I misspent my youth at racetracks during the 1960s and 1970s when thoroughbred racing was a major spectator sport. Its year-long season was full of must-see events, not sporadic, casual views such as Triple Crown races in the spring and the Breeders’ Cup in the fall. You could go to Aqueduct, New York’s down-at-the-heels sibling of Belmont Park and Saratoga, on a nondescript weekday and find 10,000 fans or more coughing up green at the betting windows.

Tom Rolfe (John Rolfe’s sire) was a star of the 1965 Triple Crown

Horse racing was in my blood. My dad taught me to read The Daily Racing Form and I spent many afternoons blowing my allowance on plugs like John Rolfe. Yes, a colt named John Rolfe ran at Aqueduct — on my birthday in 1972. How’s that for a gotta bet? I certainly did. He went off at 5-to-1 and finished at 4:30 but, hey, his sire was Tom Rolfe, our family hero and winner of the 1965 Preakness Stakes. (Tom also finished third in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Belmont.)

I later parlayed my illustrious lineage into a gig at SPORT magazine, where I covered horses like John Henry, who were national celebrities. My greatest professional thrill was following Alysheba and his trainer, Jack Van Berg, during their near Triple Crown-winning campaign in 1987. Thrilling days indeed.

Now, tracks across the land are often ghost towns even without COVID-19, which has forced New York to bar fans from its popular August meet at Saratoga. Off-track betting eliminated the need to leave home in order to lose one’s money and racing’s luster was dimmed by scandals (drugging horses, epidemics of fatal breakdowns, race fixing), and increased competition for the discretionary betting and entertainment dollar. But a few jewels still shimmer, particularly the Kentucky Derby.

In the Stretch at the Derby

The Run for the Roses remains the sport’s most famous race and biggest excuse for a party soaked in mint juleps and topped with fancy hats. Traditionally run on the first Saturday in May, the Derby will be held this year on the first Saturday in September. Churchill Downs will limit crowd density in various areas, and precautions like masks and the ceremonial washing of hands will be “encouraged.”

"Our team is deeply committed to holding the very best Kentucky Derby ever, and we will take all necessary steps to protect the health and safety of all who attend and participate in the Derby," Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery has vowed.

“Very best ever” is a longshot. “Different” is the heavy favorite with “Interesting” a contender. For one thing, the Triple Crown schedule is askew, with the last race (the Belmont) now first, and the second (the Preakness) last, in October, four months instead of three weeks later. The prep race schedule has been altered and horses that wouldn’t have been fully developed in May will be physically mature in September, boosting their chances. Those that have run most often during the year may be running out of gas by the time they reach the Derby.

Scratched Due to COVID-19: The annual Derby shindig hosted by former assistant trainer Chris Munistieri (far right)

Parties may not be run the same way either. My friends, Laura and Chris Munistieri, host an annual Derby bash replete with hats, costumes, grub, traditional libations and wagering pools, but it’s in jeopardy this year. If they host it, they’ll try to maintain social distancing and keep revelers contained in the backyard.

Ordinarily, the Derby is a high holy day at the Munistieri residence. Chris is a former hot walker, groom and assistant trainer who toiled at Aqueduct and Belmont. Laura worked for legendary trainers John Veitch and H. Allen Jerkins at tracks in New York, Florida and Kentucky. Her fandom has since been scratched by her concerns about the treatment of horses, but racing remains a passion for Chris.

“I have the party for the fun and I try to get people interested in the sport because I really like it,” he says. “Thank God racing has been there. I haven’t missed the other sports.”

Those who have will surely welcome their return even if the games are played in odd locations such as Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort, as the NBA will do, but with truncated seasons and no fans in attendance will the feeling and excitement be the same? I’m not betting on it.

John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.


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