With No Kentucky Derby, Live and Virtual Substitutes Emerge

There will be a derby on Saturday. Three of them, in fact. Churchill Downs is hosting a virtual Kentucky Derby, one pitting all 13 Triple Crown winners against one another in a simulated race, while Oaklawn Park will run the Arkansas Derby. Twice.

With so many horses with nowhere to run, the track in Hot Springs, Ark., is running its $1 million signature race in two divisions, each now worth $500,000.

“For them to do what they’ve done, it’s been a godsend,” said Jack Wolf, the managing partner of Starlight Racing and a co-owner of Charlatan, the morning line favorite to win the first division.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended all sports, including horse racing, shutting it down in all but a handful of states and transforming the Triple Crown into something — no one knows what quite yet. Racing has not resumed yet in Maryland or New York, so no dates have been confirmed for the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes.

In March, the Kentucky Derby — the live one — was moved from the first Saturday in May to the first Saturday in September, when Churchill Downs officials decided the Derby wouldn’t be the Derby without 150,000 plus fans, sporting big hats, pocket squares and clutching mint juleps.

While Churchill Downs will start holding races without fans on May 16, Bill Carstanjen, its chief executive, said he was “fairly optimistic” that America’s most famous race could be run this fall, perhaps in front of a scaled-down live audience. He noted that the racetrack is 1 million square feet and offers a variety of seating options from picnic-like grounds in the infield to premium suites.

“There’s still going to be social distancing issues,” Carstanjen said in a call with investors and analysts on Thursday. “Whatever is capable of being done in this country in four months, whatever can be done, whatever is the maximum acceptable processes and protocols, that’s where we’ll be. That’s what we’ll be offering and that’s what we’ll do.”

The virtual Derby, billed as the Triple Crown Showdown, airs on Saturday on NBC at about 5:45 p.m., the time slot when the live race was originally scheduled.

“If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, ‘We may have to go without this sport for this season,’” said Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

It has been a tumultuous year for one of America’s oldest sports. In March, federal prosecutors rounded up 27 trainers, veterinarians and drug distributors and charged them in a series of indictments with doping racehorses and cheating the public.

Among them was Jason Servis who trained Maximum Security, the winner of last year’s Derby before being disqualified for interference after a tense 22-minute review. Servis was caught on wire taps talking about joint blockers and blood builders with colorful names like “red acid” and “monkey.” Federal prosecutors allege that Maximum Security received performance-enhancing drugs for his races, including the Derby.

Last September, The Times reported that Justify, the 2018 Triple Crown winner, failed a drug test shortly before the Kentucky Derby. California racing officials spent four months investigating the failed test, long enough for Justify to not only compete in the Derby, but also win it, along with the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. In an unusual closed-door session, the racing board, whose chairman had a horse with Justify’s trainer, Bob Baffert, cleared him of wrongdoing.

Still, as trainers often say about their horses, the humans in the sport have been kicking down the barns to get back on the racetrack.

New York racing officials have been working with the New York Gaming Commission and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to open Belmont Park without spectators. In March, The New York Racing Association suspended horse racing at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens after a worker who cared for the animals tested positive for the coronavirus. As many as 30 workers who live on the backstretch of Belmont Park have tested positive for the virus.

In California, local health authorities are considering a proposal from Santa Anita Park for a fan-free reopening. That racetrack’s troubles began last year after 30 horses died in a six-month stretch that ended in late June.

“It’s like being at a bus stop and waiting for the bus to come,” said the California-based trainer Peter Eurton, whose colt, Storm the Court, will compete in the second division of the Arkansas Derby.

In the interim, Oaklawn Park has become the center of the racing universe and the race card on Saturday will be heavily populated by trainers and owners from New York and Kentucky as well as California. Not only does the Arkansas Derby offer the chance for a decent payday, it also will bestow qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby.

Fans can’t bet on the virtual Triple Crown Showdown — a sensible precaution for an animated race — but they can still make picks. Mine: Box Secretariat (1973), American Pharoah (2015) and Affirmed (1978).

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