Mighty fences ward off the giant Churchill Downs premises a notch more forebodingly than usual. Military police sit in the vastly empty lot on benches, staring into phones. A van marked “Metro Bomb Squad” plops down in its severe gray. Barbaro, the can’t-miss-it, front-gate statue of the late 2006 Derby winner, stands alone, unbothered and pretty much unseen.
Tumbleweed would fit.
Track announcers’ voices echo across the vast and vacant grounds, a thought misshapen to anyone’s memories of Kentucky Oaks day, the populous annual Louisville fete that happened non-populously Friday. Mint julep stands stand idly even if technically they don’t cry bourbon. Mobile-phone reception, always lousy, proves wretchedly easy. The paddock, where horses are prepared for races and gaudy clothes stuff the area on Derby weekend, has gone blank enough that when Derby favorite Tiz the Law acclimated himself to it during the fourth race Thursday afternoon, barely more than several people looked on.
He often turned his head toward them, as if to say thanks for coming.
In the last darkness of Friday morning, the twin spires looked normal with pink in their windows per Oaks custom, but the twin traumas of the American 2020 have warped the Derby into a shape not even close to like any of the previous 145. The police killing of emergency room technician Breonna Taylor in a no-knock raid in March sparked protests that reached a milestone of commitment Friday: 100 days. The novel coronavirus pandemic has shoved the city’s loudest event — really, the loudest event in almost any city — into both September and a hush, removing the fans who make it such an irresistible logistical hassle.
Coming and going will be easy as Christmas.
Churchill Downs issued a lengthy statement about racial injustice Thursday that read, in part: “We are not doing enough, quickly enough. That is true in our country, in our city and in our sport.” It vowed the “atmosphere of the Kentucky Derby will be different this year as we respond to those calls for change.” The organization weighed whether to discontinue the post-time playing and singing of “My Old Kentucky Home,” Stephen Foster’s 1853 composition told from the viewpoint of an enslaved person and sung with blithe fondness and teary eyes every Derby. Ultimately it decided Friday afternoon to play the song, “thoughtfully and appropriately modified.” Before it plays, there will be a moment of silence.
Several demonstrators gathered in front of Churchill Downs late Friday morning, with chants of, “No justice, no Derby.” Many more were expected Saturday.
An event with its own concocted verbal date — “the first Saturday in May” — readies for the first Saturday in September with the 70-event Derby Festival that courses through civic veins gone dormant or to game attempts at the virtual. The city’s inner calendar has gone senseless. “For many,” said Aimee Boyd of the Derby Festival, “the Derby Festival time in Louisville is like another holiday, so when you haven’t had it, it’s like, ‘How could it be September when we haven’t had all the things we do in March and April?’ ” She said: “We haven’t had those events that mark springtime. Really, it’s like spring never came.”
Mangled, too, is the racing calendar, as the 16 entries in the fan-less, roar-less Derby can attest. They include veterans of sidelight events such as the Ohio Derby, Ellis Park Derby and Indiana Derby, summertime races that always go after the Derby and generally go unknown. They include the Belmont Stakes winner, Tiz the Law, with that Triple Crown portion already run in June, first rather than its forever third. They include three horses who ran in the Travers Stakes, the Saratoga summertime habit that mirrors the Derby’s mile-and-a-quarter length.
That means Tiz the Law owner Jack Knowlton can say, as he did, “In this crazy year, he’s answered the question already that every horse gets asked, which is, ‘Can you make the mile and a quarter?’ ”
It’s all so disfigured that an annual human landmark, trainer Todd Pletcher, is absent even though his 55th Derby entry, Money Moves, isn’t. Pletcher stayed at Saratoga for the waning days of that meet. It didn’t seem all that rash.
For an utmost detail of the ever-rippling effects of the virus, one might choose the lunch counter at Wagner’s Pharmacy, that staple and track neighbor since 1922.
The seats are gone, lifted from their foundations, which stick up like stumps from the ground. The stumps look like life, stalled.
The breakfast-time drink menu soared Friday — Mimosa with Oaks glass, $11; Bloody Mary with Derby glass, $11; Old Forester, $11 — and the waitresses wore pink for the Oaks, but the coronavirus era had its say even there. Two waitresses wore plastic face coverings, one with a commendable tiara-like configuration of jewels along the top. In evidence that a past had occurred, sometime back there, the walls had their usual photos jammed with past Derby winners and autographed jockey and trainer photos, while the speakers played (lightly) Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield.”
On the way back down the fenced sidewalk along Central Avenue next to the track, the police-car count reached 37, factoring in only the marked. Officers milled about in medians. The occasional jet flew overhead, usually with packages, toward nearby Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport.
“The Kentucky Derby has been run every year for the past 145 years,” Churchill Downs’s statement read. “It is a great American tradition that has survived depressions, wars, pandemics and myriad changes in our country, large and small. The first Derby was run just ten years after the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery in America. Over ninety years later, during the 1967 Derby, protesters took to the streets around Churchill Downs, demanding equality and change. Today, more than fifty years after that, our fellow Kentuckians and fellow Americans are still asking to be heard; for all of us to understand the ongoing inequality that exists, and finally to adopt meaningful change.”
It read: “We know there are some who disagree with our decision to run the Kentucky Derby this year. We respect that point of view but made our decision in the belief that traditions can remind us of what binds us together as Americans, as we seek to acknowledge and repair the terrible pain that rends us apart.”
Back inside the track, the festive weekend without festivity began. At post time for the first race at 10:32, bugler Steve Buttleman played the national anthem, and scattered people stopped walking or talking. Five police officers, four White and one Black, stood in a neat row and saluted. Track announcers got going with the first race: “First-race scratch, the 1-A, Movie Moxy …” The infield, that annual bacchanal, looked asleep. A lucrative 13-race card began in the blank air, promising a strange exit from the blank lots.
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