Horseracing Has a Place in America’s Challenging Times

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Sporting events have long served as a comfort in difficult times and racing is no exception.

It was 1945. The Allies were still in the midst of World War II and, after the Battle of the Bulge in Northern France and before Allied victories in the South Pacific, the outcome of the war was still very much in doubt.

Throughout the war years, the attempt at normalcy continued, among that normalcy horseracing’s Triple Crown. But as the war dragged on, the supply of much-needed commodities ran short. Rubber and gasoline—the things needed then to ship racehorses cross-country—were increasingly scarce.

In part to assist the war effort, the May 5 Kentucky Derby was postponed, initially to an undetermined date, then to June 9 following the May 7 surrender of Nazi Germany and the end of the war in Europe.

The Preakness and Belmont Stakes followed suit. That year’s Preakness, won by Polynesian, ran a week later on June 16 and the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, won by Pavot, a mere week later on June 23.

Racing helps New York rise from the ashes of 9/11

On September 11, 2001, terrorists commandeered four passenger jetliners, destroying the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center and several surrounding buildings, crashing into The Pentagon and  an open field in Pennsylvania, taking more than 3,000 lives.

To most Americans, this is part of their collective memory, but 15 percent of Americans today—42 million people—were not even living then. As with that year’s World Series, which featured the New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks in a seven-game thriller, sporting events in New York took on a distinctly patriotic flavor in the wake of 9/11.

Reigning American Horse of the Year and 2000 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Tiznow with jockey Chris McCarron was in the field for the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont Park, but only the third choice at 5-1. The 2-1 favorite was A.P. Indy son Aptitude, followed by legendary Galileo.

But in a race with very fast fractions, Tiznow and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Sakhee locked into one of the most memorable stretch runs—and racing calls—in Breeders’ Cup history.

Belmont Park’s legendary Tom Durkin called the race:

Racing responds to a silent enemy

America’s enemies in 1945 and 2001 were visible. America’s—and the world’s enemy in 2020—is not.

COVID-19, the novel Coronavirus, has shuttered schools, restaurants, pubs, gathering places of all kinds, even entire nations like Italy and Spain, as the World Health Organization identifies it as a pandemic that, as of this writing, has over 200,000 reported cases, thousands of deaths and is on the brink of plunging the world into a global economic recession.

The Kentucky Derby has been postponed to Sept. 5 out of concern for its 160,000 annual attendees. ©Richard R. Gross

On Monday, Churchill Downs acknowledged the risk to its more than 160,000 patrons and staff on Derby Day 146 by postponing the Derby race from May 2 until Sept. 5, a date by which it hopes the pandemic will have peaked and life will regain a sense of normalcy.

“For the second time in the 145-year history of the event, the first time being at the end of World War II, we will move the date of the Kentucky Derby,” Bill Carstanjen, chief executive of Churchill Downs Inc. said in a statement. “We sincerely regret any inconvenience this creates for our outstanding fans, who I’m sure will understand that there is no doubt that this must be done.”

Kentucky Derby attendees will have to save their Derby Day finery until Sept. 5. ©Richard R. Gross

In announcing the postponement, Carstanjen indicated that details were being discussed to allow the other two races to be run in their traditional order and timetable after the Kentucky Derby.

Tuesday, the Maryland Jockey Club did follow suit, postponing the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course to an as yet of this writing undetermined date, but also in Sept. The postponement was announced by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who also announced immediate closure of schools and public gathering places.

The Jockey Club statement announcing the postponement read in part:

“Our first priority in these difficult times is the health and welfare of our industry participants and the public at large. We are working with state and local governments, our industry participants, media and other affiliates to determine the most appropriate time to conduct the Preakness Stakes. While we are mindful of the challenges these times present, we also know that events like the Preakness Stakes can help restore our sense of place and economic well-being to our communities and state. As soon as we have further clarity on these matters we will inform all.”

The New York Racing Association (NYRA) has since released a statement via e-mail indicating it was working with officials at Churchill Downs and the Maryland Jockey Club to determine if and to what date there will be postponement of the Belmont Stakes, currently scheduled for Saturday, June 6.

The NYRA statement issued by CEO & President Dave O’Rourke read:

“NYRA is working closely with all appropriate parties, including media rights holder NBC Sports, to make a determination about the timing of the 2020 Belmont Stakes. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend American life, decisions about large-scale public events must prioritize public health and safety above all else. NYRA will deliver an announcement only when that process has concluded to the satisfaction of state and local health departments. The Belmont Stakes is a New York institution with wide-reaching economic impact. We look forward to its 152nd edition in 2020.”

To maintain the usual order and timing of the Triple Crown races would mean the Preakness would be run, Saturday, Sept. 19 and the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, Oct. 10.

Movement of the Triple Crown races to those dates would result in serious disruption of the summer meet in Saratoga, including the G1 Travers Stakes; the G1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, NJ and the entire fall racing schedule in New York, including prep races for the Breeders’ Cup.

The change of dates could also affect the Breeders’ Cup races, currently scheduled for Keeneland, KY on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 6 and 7. The primary effect would be the likely loss of entry into the Breeders’ Cup races for three-year-old horses that run in Triple Crown events. Keeneland has already cancelled its own Spring 2020 meet.

The Triple Crown is a significant economic engine. Kentucky Derby Day generates approximately $180 million of Louisville’s $900 million annual revenue. The Preakness brings an estimated $52.7 million to Baltimore and The Belmont Stakes over $100 million to Elmont and the greater New York City area. The races also generate significant revenue from long-term contracts with NBC Sports.


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