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There Won't Be Spectators At This Year's Kentucky Derby

Churchill Downs announced Friday that the Kentucky Derby will still happen on September 5 as planned, but the race will be run without spectators in the stands.

The Derby is traditionally run on the first Saturday in May; this year, the racetrack moved it to September as the world grappled with the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, Churchill Downs released an extensive health and safety plan, and said it would limit the number of spectators allowed to attend in-person. The track also said it would eliminate the general admission tickets, and close the infield.

That plan would have allowed up to 23,000 fans into Churchill Downs for the event; for comparison, the 2015 Kentucky Derby attracted a record 170,513 fans.

But Friday, citing COVID-19 case numbers that continue to increase and White House guidance suggesting Louisville and Jefferson County are in the "red zone" based on increases in cases, Churchill Downs backtracked on that plan.

Now, the September 5th Derby will be fan-less. That includes Kentucky Oaks and all live racing scheduled at the racetrack the week of Derby. Essential personnel and participants will be the only ones allowed on the premises.

On Friday, Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery said the company had been holding out hope since March that the event could happen with in-person fans, but it became clear this week that the plan wasn't feasible.

"We felt we could not responsibly bring in 23,000 fans to the facility for the Derby," he said. "It's not an easy decision; it's one we tried as best we could to get over the finish line with it. But ultimately the safety of our guests, the community, our employees is the priority so we made this decision to move forward."

Louisville has also been experiencing nearly three months of consecutive protests for racial justice, stemming from the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black people. A Black militia group that demonstrated in the city in July said it would come back to protest the Kentucky Derby.

In response to a question about whether criticism about celebration being inappropriate at this moment in time played into the decision to keep fans from the racetrack, Flanery said he believed the Derby and the horseracing community are open to being part of the conversation about racial equality, too.

"I think this city's going through a lot right now, and i think when you look at all of the circumstances, there are a lot of people who are hurting. We've said in the past, we want a good dialogue about equality for everyone, justice for everyone," he said. "You know, the Derby in the past has been a uniting event. it's been something where we can look at our community and say we've got a lot of great things going on. Unfortunately, just given where everything is right now, we can't do that this year but that dialogue will continue. I know a lot of folks want to have meaningful conversations on that and we'll be a part of that as we move forward."

The decision to run the Derby without in-person fans was applauded by Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear in a news release.

"This week alone the county had more than 2,300 new cases,” Beshear said. “I applaud Churchill Downs for continuing to monitor the virus and for making the right and responsible decision. I am asking all Kentuckians to take action to stop the spread of the virus so we can get back to the many traditions we enjoy, like the Kentucky Derby.”

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer also said in a statement that he supports the move.

"I know this was a tough decision for Churchill Downs, but it was obviously the right call for the health and safety of the people of Louisville," he said. "We’re seeing an unfortunate spike in COVID-19 right now, and if we’re going to shorten this crisis and save lives, we have to consistently do what we know works – wear a mask, wash your hands, and maintain social distance, which in this case means watching Derby 146 from the comfort and safety of our homes. If we do this, I’m confident that we can be together at Churchill Downs for No. 147!”

This story has been updated.