We took the changing of the date very seriously. We wanted to give hope to our fans. Everything was also contingent upon working with NBC to be sure the broadcast would work with their programming schedule. We have to be certain the horses can race safely.
– tonya abeln
Business and social calendars in Louisville tend to revolve around the first Saturday in May when historic Churchill Downs traditionally hosts “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” - the Kentucky Derby. But, as with nearly every aspect of our lives under the specter of coronavirus, that date and all of the event, festival, and party plans surrounding it became filled with uncertainty. Tonya Abeln, Vice President of Corporate Communications for Churchill Downs, Inc. and President of the Churchill Downs Incorporated Foundation, described for us the atmosphere at the Corporate Office and the track itself as other sporting events were being canceled left and right and it became clear the typical Derby season in Louisville could not proceed safely. Everyone involved in the decision-making process “really felt the intensity of being here, knowing how important Derby is to Louisville.”
“We took the changing of the date very seriously. We wanted to give hope to our fans. Everything was also contingent upon working with NBC to be sure the broadcast would work with their programming schedule. We have to be certain the horses can race safely.” Because all thoroughbreds are given the birthday of January 1, all horses eligible for the original Derby dates will still be eligible in September, regardless of their actual birthdate. Variables to watch include how training schedules may be affected and which horses will be in peak or prime condition later in the year.
According to the official Kentucky Derby website, “The 146th Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve will be rescheduled from May 2, 2020, to September 5, 2020, and the 146th Longines Kentucky Oaks will be rescheduled from May 1, 2020, to September 4, 2020.” In fact, the entire Tuesday through Saturday Derby Week racing schedule has been moved to the first week of September 2020, including Champions Day, Dawn at the Downs, and Thurby. The Kentucky Derby was postponed only once before in its 146-year history. Although the Allied victory in World War II looked almost certain, horse racing was deemed “an unnecessary expenditure of resources” and banned until Germany’s surrender on May 7. The 71st Kentucky Derby was run on June 9, 1945.
Although most Louisvillians were relieved that the Derby was not completely canceled, there was still a palpable sense of loss heading into the first week of May. Virtual events such as Oaks Night In and The Kentucky Derby: Triple Crown Showdown helped to fill the void. The Triple Crown Showdown aired 3-6 pm ET May 2, 2020, on NBC. The 13 Triple Crown winners appeared in a virtual race to the finish, with the legendary Secretariat claiming the Showdown title. Nearly $700,000 was raised for Direct Relief and the Team Kentucky COVID-19 relief fund. With 1.7 million viewers, the Triple Crown Showdown was the 2nd highest rated sports program during the quarantine.
Fashion may seem a shallow subject in the middle of a global pandemic. But Derby week fashion is serious business for race fans. As for all the custom hats already ordered and outfits planned, Tonya doesn’t predict any major style adjustments for the late summer race card. Derby tradition is that “We dress for the weather we want.” Early September weather in Louisville is typically more predictable than early May. Tonya believes those sundresses, linens, and seersuckers won’t have to be covered in layers this time around. Fall fashions will have to wait for the Breeders Cup at Keeneland in early November. The fashion question Tonya is asked most often these days is whether she thinks masks will need to be incorporated into and coordinated with Derby hats.
There are still many unknowns for the Kentucky Derby Festival, Churchill Downs, and other partners. Galas and other Derby-related events bring people together. Organizers will have to figure out “how to move forward under whatever restrictions and guidelines we are given” at the time, says Tonya. She is hopeful that Churchill Downs’ neighbors “will still be able to thrive during Derby, an “economically important day” for them and that the “spirit of celebration in the infield” will be able to continue, even if that looks a little different this year. Churchill Downs is also exploring ways to recognize essential and frontline healthcare workers during Derby Week.
Balancing safety with “consistency and tradition” is top of mind for Churchill Downs executives like Tonya. “We feel confident about how we’ll be able to execute safely for our guests. So much of it is contingent upon the virus.” They plan to “reevaluate safety precautions and protocols constantly” and “will adjust to whatever is in place to maintain safety,” including observing “best practices from other sports.” Tonya urges Louisvillians to keep their Derby spirit alive. “There is a rhythm to the city during Derby that will be crammed into a shorter amount of time. Embrace the differences this year. This will be the most unique Derby of our lifetimes and a story that we’ll tell our children and grandchildren."