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Without Spectators, Churchill Downs Marks A 'Surreal' 2020 Derby Day

Two of the few attendees at Churchill Downs for the 2020 Kentucky Derby.
Two of the few attendees at Churchill Downs for the 2020 Kentucky Derby.

The 146th Kentucky Derby will likely go down in history as one of the eeriest. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Churchill Downs marked Derby Day 2020 without spectators: no crush of gamblers in the paddock craning to get a look at their pick, no crowds roaring in the grandstand over the thunder of hooves. Instead, there was just the voice of the announcer echoing over the PA through the mostly empty grandstand, and near the track, the sounds of the horses’ hooves hitting the dirt.  

Claudia Spadaro was one of the few standing in Churchill Downs’ grandstand Saturday, wearing a red dress and large white lace fascinator. She had a horse running during the day: Pony Express. 

“It’s completely empty,” she said looking around at the stands. “Like nothing’s happening.”

Spadaro said she’s watched the Derby since she was a young girl.

“I always had these emotions to come here because I know how much it means to us in horse racing, and the energy, and the vibe you breathe when you're here,” she said. “It makes me sad, but at the same time, I'm grateful… we have the possibility to be at Derby.”

Different, but “historic” she said, one she’ll someday tell her grandkids about.

And her horse did well, placing second.

Near the paddock, Mary Jane and David Kirkpatrick were watching the horses for the Iroquois Stakes circle the track. Later, their horse Authentic will run in the Kentucky Derby.

This is the Atlanta couple's 12th Derby, and David said was “surreal” to not see the large crowds.

“But I think the track’s doing the best job they can and everything's going smooth so far,” he said. "It's sad that we can't be here with the rest of our family, but we're making the best of it. Everybody's watching on TV.”

Mary Jane said one perk to a fan-less Derby was that could wear the large black and white fascinator hat she purchased in Louisville several years ago. 

“On a normal Kentucky Derby day, I don't even know that I could wear this because I couldn't get in and out of crowds,” she said. 

Fans or not, it’s still exciting for your horse to land a coveted spot in the Kentucky Derby, “the biggest thrill and two minutes of sports in the world,” Mary Jane Kirkpatrick said.

As they leave the paddock, the Kirkpatricks exclaim, “Go Authentic!”


For the employees of Churchill Downs, it was a slow and strange day. Inside, people walked through empty corridors, fans whirred over empty lobbies, workers served food with face shields and gloves. Everyone was wearing a mask — though some had added a Derby flair  with rhinestones or theme-appropriate patterns.

Dana Moore was working behind betting counters. She said the atmosphere at Churchill Downs was like an ordinary Tuesday rather than a Derby Saturday.  

Moore has worked the Kentucky Derby since 1984, and said having the race in September has her all confused.

“Because everything's out of order,” she said. “It's like we had the Belmont first, and we haven't had the Preakness yet."

Usually the Kentucky Derby is the first race in the Triple Crown series, then the Preakness, and last the Belmont.

"The first winner should have been the Kentucky Derby. So it doesn’t make sense," she said.

Moore said it’s fun to see owners get excited when their horses do well, but she misses seeing the fans. At least the weather has been beautiful though, she added.

Rick Funaro is a co-owner of Derby favorite Tiz the Law. He said he always gets butterflies before a race; all the co-owners do. He also said having no fans because of COVID doesn’t “diminish the thrill” of having a horse run the Derby.

Tiz the Law won the Belmont in June, and Funaro says he's grateful to be at Churchill Downs because owners weren't allowed in at the Belmont. He says he hopes all the horses have a good and safe race, though he of course wants Tiz the Law to win.

Outside, near the gates to Churchill Downs under a perfect September-blue sky, the faint sounds of protest could be heard: a dim squawk from a far-away loud speaker, and the drone of a helicopter.

Hundreds of protesters calling for racial justice were gathered outside the racetrack, kept back by fencing, armored vehicles, police and National Guard members. A national Black militia called the NFAC was there too.

Protesters are calling for the officers who killed 26-year-old Breonna Taylor to be arrested and charged. Many activists have criticized Churchill Downs and the city for moving forward with the event while calls for justice for Taylor have so far gone unanswered.