Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear Allows Churchill Downs to Prepare for Racing Without Fans

Posted on: April 29, 2020, 11:05h. 

Last updated on: April 30, 2020, 08:36h.

Churchill Downs received approval on Wednesday from Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear to open its backstretch to horsemen on May 11. That will mark the first day they can bring horses to the iconic Kentucky track and prepare them for the upcoming spring meet.

Churchill Downs Racing
The next time horses race at Churchill Downs, there will not be any fans watching at the historic Louisville track. (Image: Churchill Downs)

When exactly that meet will start remains uncertain. Churchill Downs did not cite a date in its press release after Beshear’s announcement during his daily COVID-19 briefing. Track officials will implement a strict regimen to blunt the spread of the coronavirus. That includes a daily screening process, requirements for social distancing, and a set schedule for bringing horses in from other tracks across the country.

I will tell you this is one of the most detailed plans that we have seen about specific security checks that everybody has to go through and be temperature-checked to masking to having a very limited group that is there,” Beshear said Wednesday.

When racing starts, horses will run without fans in the grandstand. That’s the case at the seven US tracks currently racing.

In addition to no fans, no media personnel will be allowed on-site. Only authorized Churchill Downs officials, as well as Kentucky Horse Racing Commission-licensed personnel, such as trainers, veterinarians, jockeys, exercise riders, and other support staff, will receive permission to be at the track as long as they comply with the COVID-19 guidelines.

Government officials will determine when fans can resume coming to the track, Churchill’s release stated.

Racing Continues Elsewhere Without Fans

Kentucky horse racing is designed to be a year-round business. However, like in most states, it stopped in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Churchill Downs Inc. canceled the last three days of Turfway Park’s winter meet after Beshear issued a statewide order closing nonessential businesses. Before that, Turfway ran for about two weeks without fans.

Keeneland also canceled its spring meet, which was supposed to run for three weeks earlier this month. Churchill’s meet was originally supposed to start last Saturday, but back in March, track officials announced it would be delayed. In addition, the week of racing leading up to the Kentucky Derby, initially set for this Saturday, would be pushed back to early September.

In recent weeks, as racing has continued with success in places like Florida’s Gulfstream Park and Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Arkansas, and even at such smaller tracks as Nebraska’s Fonner Park, horsemen and racing enthusiasts in Kentucky began calling for the resumption of racing.

However, Beshear and other state officials pushed back, raising concerns about spreading the virus even in a fan-free environment. All the while, Churchill Downs kept pushing the date back for when horsemen would be allowed at the track, until they finally reached an agreement with Beshear Wednesday.

“We truly appreciate the leadership of Gov. Beshear and all of the hard work and guidance that state and local officials and public health experts have provided us to safely reopen,” said Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery in a statement. “The health and safety of our horsemen, staff, and community remains paramount. Strict compliance with our comprehensive COVID-19 Action Plan and social distancing guidelines is our responsible duty to effectively contain the virus.”

Critics Say Delay Costly

While some greeted Beshear’s announcement with a mix of relief and joy, others have been critical of how the Governor has treated one of the state’s signature industries.

The Lexington Herald-Leader reported Tuesday some racing managers and trainers had grown frustrated with how the situation played out in the Bluegrass State. They cited the other tracks’ record in controlling the spread of COVID-19 as proof that Kentucky should have resumed racing earlier.

State Sen. Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) told Wednesday night that the plan Churchill Downs officials put forward was the same one they proposed previously. Thayer, the majority floor leader in the state senate and a former racing executive, said Beshear delayed the start of the meet by two weeks. Thayer has been complimentary of how the Democratic governor has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic. But he has raised concerns about Beshear’s plans for reopening the economy.

“Every day that goes by without racing means less money flowing to the families of people who are involved in racing, and then spending it in our economy and money from wagering going to the general fund of Kentucky,” Thayer said. “It’s disappointing. I think it was avoidable, and we could have accelerated this.”

Churchill Downs’ release states that when it starts racing, it will do so for a minimum of four days a week. Thayer hopes track officials will consider racing an extra day, and even add races beyond the typical nine- or 10-race card to make up for the lost time.

The meet will end on June 27.

“It’s important that happens for the sake of the Kentucky circuit as we move into Ellis Park and Kentucky Downs, Keeneland, …and Turfway later in the year,” Thayer said. “We’ve got to get the circuit back going.”