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UPDATE: Churchill Down fills up for first full-capacity Derby since 2019

Several of the Kentucky Derby Festival Princesses pose on the red carpet at Churchill Downs ahead of the 148th Kentucky Derby.
Several of the Kentucky Derby Festival Princesses pose on the red carpet at Churchill Downs ahead of the 148th Kentucky Derby.

Churchill Downs was buzzing with thousands of people on Saturday at the first full-capacity Kentucky Derby since 2019.

Excitement at the track started building early in the morning, hours before the call to post. Spectators said they were happy to have the celebration back in full swing after two years of COVID-19 restrictions.

“We always say, if you lived in a town where the Super Bowl was being run, would you not go? Of course you do,” said Marilyn Shiner, who was at the race with a group of friends.

There were no paid attendees at the 2020 Run for the Roses, which was delayed to September due to COVID-19. It was the first time since World War II that it wasn't held on the first Saturday in May. Last year’s crowd was scaled back.

Before the pandemic, Shiner let friends from out of town stay at her home every year for Derby. She said she enjoyed reuniting with them to make memories.

One of her friends, Ellen Jung, said she believes the large crowds and charged atmosphere on Saturday are a sign of what’s to come as the country bounces back from the pandemic.

“It kind of lessens your anxiety. You’re hopeful things are going to get fully back to this at one point,” Jung said.

Derby’s comeback attracted plenty of star power, including rapper and Louisville native Jack Harlow. 

Harlow brought his own out-of-town guest, rapper Drake, to film a music video for their song “Churchill Downs.” He also gave the “Riders Up” call before the race.

A crew filmed Harlow and his entourage as he walked the red carpet. Later in the day, the rappers entertained fans in the infield.

Emma Kayrouz, a long-time fan of Harlow and Louisville native, said she appreciates the recognition Harlow gives the city in his music.

“I love it. It’s amazing because I feel like sometimes Louisville doesn’t get the representation that it needs, and he brings it,” Kayrouz. 

Tate Watts, who also saw Harlow in the infield, agreed with Kayrouz.

“I think it’s crazy to see a celebrity like that come back to Louisville and still support his fans,” Watts said.

Politicians were among the recognizable faces at the Derby.

Former Republican President Donald Trump held a $75,000 per-person fundraiser at Churchill Downs on race day.

Shortly after the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home,” the crowd erupted into cheers and boos when the track’s jumbotron camera panned to Trump, waving at the crowd.

Trump was joined by former U.N. Ambassador Kelly Knight Craft, a Kentucky native who has hinted at running for governor. Craft has been a prolific fundraiser for Kentucky Republicans and is married to coal magnate Joe Craft.

The former president’s arrival at Churchill Downs was largely kept secret. Law enforcement from the FBI and Kentucky State Police cordoned off an entry path for Trump with curtains that blocked the public from watching him.

Still, onlookers shouted and jeered as his silhouette passed across the curtain.

Gov. Andy Beshear walked the red carpet with his family before holding a press conference ahead of the races.

“We’re at the safest point we’ve been at for a long time,” he said. “I like to think when people turn and look at Kentucky, they see all the special things Team Kentucky has to offer and they don’t just like to visit. They like to invest, they like to move and they see what an incredible place it is to live.”

When asked about Trump’s fundraiser, Beshear, a Democrat, said “the great thing about the Kentucky Derby is we welcome everybody.”

“Hopefully we put any divisions aside, hopefully we focus more on the race in front of us than any races in our future,” Beshear said. “Kentucky is welcoming to anybody who wants to come to this track, the former president included.”

It was 20-year-old Dane Howell’s first Kentucky Derby, as a spectator and as a performer. Howell, who recently finished his sophomore year at the University of Louisville, performed “My Old Kentucky Home” with the U of L marching band ahead of the big race. He said the vibe at Churchill Downs was “fantastic.” 

“It’s so great, making music with our colleagues and our peers, being together again as a full band,” Howell said. “And I feel like it has so much more power and meaning for the spectators and the Derby as a whole. It’s just great to be back together in full form.”

Last year, only a small portion of the band performed the state song at the Derby due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And in 2020, Churchill Downs modified the song’s presentation at a spectator-less Derby following a summer of racial justice protests in the city, having it performed by a solo bugler.

This story has been updated. Ryland Barton and Stephanie Wolf contributed to this story.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.

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