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Organizers Scrambling to Avoid a Year Without a Triple Crown

13 May, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
The Derby is on the Books but Race Courses in COVID-19-Ravaged Baltimore and Belmont Continue to Weigh Options

It’s official that 2020 will see an end-of-summer Kentucky Derby (increasingly being called the “Labor Derby” since it falls on the Saturday of the three-day Labor Day weekend). And with that settled, talk is turning to the remaining events in thoroughbred racing’s famed Triple Crown. Only not much seems to be settled there.

In early April, the Stronach Group (owners of Pimlico Race Course, where the Preakness is held) and the Maryland Jockey Club released a statement, noting that the race had been postponed – and the Infield Fest (described by some as a concert and celebration and by others as a bacchanalia of hedonism) had been cancelled.

Last week, news reports in Maryland stated that an October date had been settled upon for the rescheduled Preakness; however, shortly thereafter, Stronach and the Maryland Jockey Club took to social media to note that no definitive date had been set and that the organizations would “continue to explore options. Once a date for Preakness 145 has been finalized, an announcement will be made.”

Translation: Stop jumping the gun.

As the situation continues to evolve, speculation has been rife, with some pundits noting an early October date would be more likely, since the weather is far more conducive to attracting racing fans. According to Accuweather, the area generally starts the month with highs in the mid-70s and lows in the mid-50s; by the end of the month, those temperatures have dropped to highs in the mid-50s and lows in the upper 40s.

At least we know the Preakness will continue in Maryland; a Maryland Senate bill that will help redevelop Pimlico Race Course, was approved late last week, according to news reports. As part of a long-term agreement, Pimlico will be turned over to Baltimore City, the Baltimore Development Corporation, or another previously established designated entity. In addition, the agreement must ensure that the Preakness Stakes remains at the site. 

But the problems don’t end with the Preakness. The Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown race, is held at Belmont Park in New York, and that state, unfortunately, is a COVID-19 hotbed – and while organizers plainly want to present the race, they are making no claims as to whether or when it can take place.

Back in March, Dave O’Rourke, CEO and President of the New York Racing Association, which administers the Belmont Stakes, made a statement, noting, “NYRA is working closely with all appropriate parties, including media rights holder NBC Sports, to make a determination about the timing of the 2020 Belmont Stakes. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend American life, decisions about large-scale public events must prioritize public health and safety above all else. NYRA will deliver an announcement only when that process has concluded to the satisfaction of state and local health departments. The Belmont Stakes is a New York institution with wide-reaching economic impact. We look forward to its 152nd edition in 2020.” 

Assuming Baltimore’s Preakness goes off in October, that would lead to a Belmont Stakes being presented sometime in November, provided the virus is under control and restrictions are relaxed.

But as in Baltimore, an earlier date in the month would likely be more conducive to spectators, since Accuweather notes Belmont, New York, generally greets November with highs in the mid-60s and lows of 40; by the end of the month, that has shifted to daily highs in the low 50s and a low in the low 30s. Another complication could be the Thanksgiving holiday; should the race be held on the last Saturday of the month, it would come during the Thanksgiving weekend. (Of course, given Kentucky’s ability to adapt to a new date, that could give rise to RaceGiving, which would make a nifty hashtag for social media). 

If social distancing regulations are in effect, that could also play havoc on the attendance of any – or all three – of the races, which under normal circumstances, enjoy sell-out attendance and heavy in-person betting. Already, the need to keep spectators safe at sports events has given rise to an entirely new economy, including drones spraying disinfectant on stadiums and arenas prior to and after events, computers that model ideal spacing of spectators – and apps that allow fans to purchase a cardboard image of themselves to be set in the stands.

Already, shutdowns and closures of non-essential businesses have wreaked havoc on the racing industry. Promo Marketing recently announced that organizers of the Breeders Cup in Lexington, Kentucky, have started a T-shirt design contest that will direct proceeds to “backstretch communities and other industry stakeholders” whose livelihoods have taken a hit.

The recent Triple Crown Showdown, shown on May 2 (the original date of the Kentucky Derby before the COVID-19 crisis), was a computer-generated race showing the 13 Triple Crown winners of the past (from Sir Barton in 1919 to Justify in 2018, competing against one another against the virtual spires of Churchill Downs. (A pre-race analysis of the various contenders appears here, along with other information). Secretariat won the hard-fought race but the event itself, a full day of it, was a tribute to the ability to make lemonade (or in this case, mint juleps) at a time when fun was thin on the ground.

Events detailed on the site included a sing-along of “My Old Kentucky Home,” directions for mixing Derby cocktails, fascinator-making instructions, ideas for party decorations, kids’ crafts, Derby-inspired recipes and an at-home Derby fashion contest. In lieu of betting, there were links for donations to COVID-19 relief efforts.

Note to organizers of other sports events who want to honor their original event date: the bar has been set.

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