Churchill Downs opens, but not for fans yet

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY

The neighborhood was quiet on a warm morning threatening rain.

Masks were de rigueur at a press conference outside the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs, a statue of Barbaro checking out the scene.

Reporters stood on the plaza 6 feet apart as the spring meeting stood poised to open for live horse racing, even if no one could pay their way in to watch it.

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Thoroughbreds were taking baby steps as Kentucky and the country inched its way back to normalcy interrupted by the COVID-19 virus.

“We’re excited about opening this weekend,” said Downs President Kevin Flanery.

Ordinarily, spring racing would have begun weeks ago. A little event called the Kentucky Derby is run on the first Saturday in May. It is the grandest, most festive day of the year in Louisville. The most prestigious thoroughbred race in the world plays out over 2 minutes and ordinarily kicks off the Triple Crown for 3-year-olds.

The universal scale of the coronavirus disrupted sporting events everywhere. The Derby has been rescheduled for Sept. 5.

Horses ran over the weekend and will continue to run at Churchill Downs but only under an extremely restrictive game plan to keep workers safe and to prevent disease spread.

Only essential personnel for the horses’ welfare are allowed on the backside — trainers, groomers, workout riders. Even owners are locked out on race day, prevented from watching their animals compete.

“We wanted to do this in a responsible way,” Flanery said. “You have to be an essential person.”

Backside workers were tested for the virus, registered with the track, have their temperatures taken daily and asked questions about contacts with others. It seems as if the screening is about equal to an Army physical.

“The challenge was we wanted to do things right,” Flanery said.

The measure of doing things right would be the absence of illness, no breakouts among workers existing in close quarters.

Horsemen were happy to have somewhere to bring their horses. Like most of the rest of the sports world, races basically shut down in mid-March. It was only May 11 that Churchill Downs opened its stable area to take in wandering horses.

Trainer Brad Cox was anxious to see what filly Monomoy Girl could do after a long layoff. The horse won the 2018 Kentucky Oaks and the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff to be named champion 3-year-old. But then she was sidelined with health problems, from colic to a hamstring injury.

When the hamstring flared last September, Cox feared the horse’s career might be over except for breeding.

“Honestly, this was Plan A,” Cox said for a comeback. “She’s a nice horse.”

Whether it was for luck or nostalgia, Cox watched a 2018 Kentucky Oaks replay that morning.

Supporting the belief Monomoy Girl is a special horse, the filly won a 1-mile allowance race last Saturday with Florent Geroux up. Monomoy Girl went out comfortably, took the lead late and won by two and a half lengths.

There were no spectators in the stands, but the racing was televised by Fox. Trainer Tom Amoss trains Serengeti Empress and is a part-time TV analyst.

“To continue to be able to train, hats off to Churchill Downs,” Amoss said. “That’s big for us.”

Flanery said 101 trainers and 49 jockeys were cleared for the racing. He hopes this is only an intermediate step and as the season progresses restrictions should be lifted. The overwhelming issue is where does the Derby fit into this mix.

Flanery said administrators have a list of 10 to 15 possible scenarios for a Derby. Normally, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes follow at set intervals.

Last week, a Preakness date of Oct. 3 was solidified. The other day, it was announced the Belmont Stakes will be contested June 20 — before the others — at a shorter distance of 1 1/8th miles and instead of 1 1/2 miles and without spectators.

“If it’s in a different order, it will be talked about for generations,” Flanery said before the Belmont switched.

What the Derby will look like in 2020 is just speculation.

“We still have quite a ways until the first Saturday in September,” Flanery said.

Months out, no one can tell if that is a safe date or a wishful-thinking date.

Lew Freedman is the Sports Editor for The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected] aimmediaindiana.com.