Mark Story: What it was like at Churchill Downs on the Kentucky Derby Day without a Derby

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Even seven weeks into a medical quarantine, muscle memory can take over.

On Kentucky Derby Day 2020, I reflexively did what I have done on the first Saturday in May every year since 1994: I got up early, dressed and drove to Churchill Downs.

Amazingly for a an event that generally attracts in excess of 150,000 fans, I touched my brakes one time on Taylor Boulevard headed into the track. The people who live near the Downs who are normally feverishly competing to rent you a parking spot in their yards were nowhere in sight.

Finding an open gate in the “G Lot” at Churchill Downs, I parked so close to the grandstand — one of two cars in a gigantic lot — I could all but feel the famed twin spires hovering overhead.

Turns out, ingress is pretty manageable on a Kentucky Derby Day without a Derby.

The strange, sad, frustrating year that is 2020 reached a poignant milestone for Kentuckians on Saturday. Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the efforts to contain it, there was no Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May for the first time in 75 years.

To be at Churchill on the day the 146th Kentucky Derby should have gone off was surreal.

Throughout the mid-morning, a small but steady stream of people milled by the Churchill Downs entrance to pose for cell-phone pictures with the statue of 2006 Derby winner Barbaro and with the track in the background.

Catherine Blase and Bill Teskoski of Shelby County were there in fine Derby attire: Blase in a pink dress and hat, Teskoski in a navy sportcoat and tie over tan khaki slacks.

“I’ve been to the Derby a few times, but Catherine hadn’t,” Teskoski said. “I figured this was a great time for her to come here to her first Derby.”

Said Blase: “We’re here making memories.”

Kenny Rice of NBC Sports was at the track. The Lexington resident was reporting live from “the Kentucky Derby” for the network’s 3-6 p.m. non-Derby telecast.

“They wanted me to be at Churchill Downs live for two or three hits,” Rice said in the run up to Saturday. “I guess I’ll be able to say I was ‘at the Derby.’ ”

Over the prior three years, monsoon-like weather besieged Churchill Downs on Derby Day. This year, as if a taunt from the gods, a glorious sun shone in Louisville.

“Wouldn’t you know it, after all this rain, it’s going to be a nice day. It doesn’t seem fair,” said Tom Hammond, the former host of NBC Kentucky Derby telecasts, Friday evening.

The most recent time there was no Kentucky Derby run at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May was the World War II year of 1945.

Then, James F. Byrnes, running the Office of War Mobilization for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, shut down horse racing entirely.

Byrnes decided that the manpower needed to run race tracks and the supplies of fuel and rubber tires required to transfer horses to and from races were needed for the war effort.

So on May 5, 1945, Churchill Downs sat idle.

Three days later, Nazi Germany surrendered.

Byrnes soon relented on his horse racing ban. Churchill Downs officials were able to get a Kentucky Derby organized in a little over a month.

On June 9, 1945, the horse Hoop Jr. carried iconic jockey Eddie Arcaro to the third of what would be his five Derby wins.

This year, of course, it is a cruel and highly contagious virus that has made it too dangerous for crowds to gather that postponed the Kentucky Derby.

The plan is to run the race on Sept. 5. Whether the coronavirus will be contained to a sufficient degree to allow fans to be in the stands that day remains highly uncertain.

For Kentuckians, a first Saturday in May without a Derby left a gaping void needing to be filled.

Hammond was looking forward to NBC’s planned rebroadcast of American Pharoah’s victory in the 2015 Derby. Having been the host of the coverage that day, “I’ve never seen the telecast of that,” Hammond said.

Veteran Louisville radio and TV broadcaster Paul Rogers would have been celebrating his 69th birthday while attending his 52nd straight Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Instead, Rogers was looking forward to NBC’s planned virtual race featuring all 13 previous Triple Crown-winning horses. “I am, I’m kind of curious to see that,” Rogers said.

Louisvillian Alan Schneider, 50, took to Twitter last week to call for Kentuckians everywhere to step outside their homes around 6:28 p.m. Saturday to sing “My Old Kentucky Home.”

“It seemed to resonate with people,” Schneider said Friday. “I think people in Louisville, especially, really felt the loss (of Derby week).”

Others dealt with their Derby yearning by visiting the race’s home on the day The Run for the Roses should have been contested for the 146th time.

“It’s Derby Day,” said Scott Pritchett, a Louisville native and Georgetown, Ind., resident. “We were out for a walk and thought, ‘Let’s go by and see what’s happening at Churchill Downs.’ ”

From the cursed year that has been 2020, we will always remember the “Kentucky Derby Day” that did not include the Kentucky Derby.


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