Equine Update: Getting Back on Track

Story by Jen Roytz


Horse Racing Working Toward Recovery After COVID-19 Shutdowns

The first Saturday in May had a distinctively different vibe this year. Like so many other businesses and industries, horse racing in Kentucky has felt the effects of COVID-19. When you face unprecedented challenges, like a global pandemic, it calls for difficult decisions and changes to be made, such as Keeneland’s cancelation of its iconic spring meet and the postponing of the Churchill Downs spring meet and its signature event, the Kentucky Derby, which has been rescheduled for September 5th. 

As we transition from the “Shelter in Place” orders of spring to the cautious and careful reopening of the country through the summer, racing officials and horsemen’s groups are working with the state and local government to create protocols and procedures that will allow a return of racing in the Bluegrass while complying with regulations. This will include putting unprecedented protocols in place for Churchill Downs and Keeneland’s summer and fall meets, as well as for the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, which are scheduled to be held at Keeneland on November 6 and 7. 

“Keeneland means so much to our fans, our horsemen and the Central Kentucky community, and we are all excited for the fall meet and the Breeders’ Cup World Championships,” said Keeneland President and CEO Bill Thomason. “Keeneland is coordinating with other Kentucky tracks, local and state officials and health experts to plan and put protocols in place to ensure a safe environment for fall racing.”

In a normal year, the Churchill Downs spring meet begins the week after Keeneland’s spring race meet concludes, with the Kentucky Derby always slated for the first Saturday in May, however, the track was forced to delay both the opening of its stable area to horsemen and the start of its spring meet. Churchill Downs executives worked with Governor Andy Beshear and his team to create a staggered plan for allowing equestrians from various parts of the country to return to the track and received approval from state officials to begin racing on May 16 without spectators. 

With the lack of racing and sporting events for the past several months, fans welcomed the return of racing from home. According to Churchill Downs publicity department, more than $14 million was wagered on their opening day card, up a staggering 183.7 percent from the $5 million handle on the comparable date last year. 

Like horse racing, many national sports are considering how best to handle a return to competition in the wake of COVID-19. Many discussions have centered around the possibility of spectator-less events, biosecurity and virtual (online) fan engagement. Keeneland and the Breeders’ Cup are hard at work, creating protocols that will mitigate potential health risks for the general public and horsemen while allowing racing to return. Churchill Downs, which offered Governor Beshear’s office what he termed as one of the most comprehensive return to business plans he had seen, will be refining their protocols as the state regulations and status of COVID-19 evolves. 

While we might have to trade in our mint juleps for a pumpkin-spiced variety and possibly swap a Derby hat for a fancy mask, cheers to the racing industry as they work to get back on track!