(Country House after the 2019 Kentucky Derby / Photo by Holly M. Smith)
This morning, at 9 a.m. ET, Churchill Downs Incorporated’s Chief Executive Officer Bill Carstanjen, along with the corporate entity’s Chief Operating Officer Bill Mudd and Churchill Downs’ President Kevin Flanery made two official announcements:
One, the 2020 Kentucky Derby — the 146th edition of the “Greatest Race” will NOT be held on first Saturday in May — has it has been for the past 75 years and in every other year of its’ 145-year history with only one exception.
In these parts, that’s big news — even though we here at “The Pressbox” may have preempted some of the punch by breaking the announcement on Monday. It is still historic news. It is, without question, earth-shaking news. It is depressing news, to be sure.
Two, this year’s Kentucky Derby will be rescheduled to Labor Day week and be conducted on the First Saturday in September — Sept. 5.
In these parts, that’s even bigger news. It’s important and critical news. And, on a day and at a time when we could all use a break from the 24/7 commentary of every medical professional from Hawkeye Pierce to Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and we could stomach a heaping dose of sanity and good news? Today’s announcement by Churchill Downs is about as comforting as asking a real-life Doogie Howser to sit on the side of the bed and give you life advice.
Don’t get me wrong. The pandemic COVID-19 virus that is sweeping our world today is truly serious business. It’s scary business. All kinds of people are getting sick. A lot of people are getting real sick. Some of us are dying. Simply put, that is horrid.
Don’t get me wrong. A lot of us are scared, too. About the only thing we truly do know about the damn thing is that we don’t want to catch it, and that the frigging stuff — which flies through the air undetected by human eye — can be a deadly assassinator of the sickest kind for our elderly and most vulnerable citizens. Simply put, that demands utmost attention, diagnosis, urgent treatment and radical decisions on how best to contain.
And, don’t get me wrong. I am thankful that we have groups of conscientious governmental leaders and health care experts and providers that are willing to do what it takes to help curtail the spread of this awful disease and limit the impact on all of us. Simply put, we need this now more than ever.
These are difficult decisions and times. These times require difficult decisions and choices.
Yet, don’t mistake for a single second, either, that today I smiled for one of the first times in a very long time.
I smiled because I now know that our Kentucky Derby — which means as much to us in this Commonwealth as the National Anthem may mean to you — will be sung.
I smiled because I now know that our Kentucky Derby — which lives in our past, present, future, and our souls from cradle to grave — will be run on.
I smiled because I now know that the people that make the corporate decisions at Churchill Downs fully understand exactly what this day and race means to us. Us. Kentuckians.
Today, despite all the turmoil in our world, I smiled.
And, despite what some people may want you to think or be today? It is still OK to smile. It is still OK to be happy. It is still OK to be optimistic. It is still OK to be proud of who you are and from whence you came. And, it is still OK to plan for a better tomorrow; a better Labor Day than ever before; a First Saturday in September.
And, today, I smiled because of my friends at Churchill Downs. I am damn proud of them. I am damn proud to call them my friends.
Today, Churchill Downs stepped forward and made two major decisions:
First, Churchill Downs did the only thing it could have. It stopped the Kentucky Derby on the First Saturday in May. It couldn’t dare move forward with the thought of 150,000 people crammed shoulder to shoulder at Churchill Downs; all risking health and safety.
But, secondly, Churchill Downs did the only thing it could have for the health of this city; this Commonwealth; and this industry. It started making plans for the Kentucky Derby on the First Saturday in September.
You see, if you are not Kentuckian, then you can’t really understand. Try as you must? You cannot.
The Kentucky Derby is our economic engine. It is what drives our state. Whether you want to believe it or not, the event means billions to our Commonwealth. The money bounces around our people like a tennis ball rammed by Nadal. (The tennis player; not the horse.)
It supports our hotels and restaurants. It carries our bartenders and servers. It sustains our service workers. The money and taxes generated trickles down to every single member of our communities and counties. Every. Single. One.
The Kentucky Derby is our Wall Street. It is our Rodeo Drive and Hollywood. It is our Grand Canyon and sandy beach. It is our Miracle Mile. It is our Outer Banks, Hilton Head and Mertle Beach all rolled into one. It is our oil well, and your corn field.
It is our way of life.
The Kentucky Derby is the crowning achievement of our horse industry, too. It is our Masters, and our World Series. It is our Super Bowl and our Final Four. It is our World Cup and our Olympic Games.
Yet, it is more.
It is what every person who ever breeds a horse dreams of and about. It is what every person who drives by a farm and sees past the fences to catch a glimpse of a foal and their mother. It is what they dream of and about. It is what every person who can spell H-O-R-S-E dreams of and about.
It is why we get up at 4 a.m. and head to the racetrack to see the horses gallop along through the fog and log mile, after mile, after mile in grace and solitude.
It is why we go to the clinic and stand in the stall with an ailing horse.
It is why we invest both money and soul into a Thoroughbred, who is more than likely going to break our hearts and bank accounts.
It is why we do it. Over. And over. And over.
It is who were are.
It is our way of life.
But it is more than that, too.
This is our life.
Oh, on Derby Day, you may get a glimpse of the party in us, but you will never see all our pride that wells inside from toe to tear.
Oh, on Derby Day, you may listen to the words of “My Old Kentucky Home,” when the horses step foot on the most precious slab of dirt known to man and wonder what they mean, but you will never hear the music in our souls that requires us all to stand and sing. And, sing as fiercely and loudly as if we were standing alone in our showers at home. Unashamed. Untethered.
Oh, on Derby Day, you may feel some emotion as the excitement swells from rumble to yells as the horses approach the starting gate, but you can never touch our home-bred joy or understand how this moment in time touches our hearts and our souls and reminds us of who we are and how we were raised. Every single year. On the first Saturday in May. Every single time.
Oh, on Derby Day, you may smell the roses. You may drink the julep. You may bet the horses. You may wear the hat. You may look good in the suit. You may even smoke the cigar. You may even get lucky enough to win and make your way to the winner’s circle and hoist the trophy over your head.
But try as you will, you will never grasp the essence of what this day means to us. Us. Kentuckians.
This day is our joy.
So, when we Kentuckians see that the First Saturday in May will come and it will go without a Kentucky Derby to celebrate and enjoy, we grunt. We groan. We double over. It is a gut punch. To the heart. To the soul.
But when we Kentuckians see that Churchill Downs will not let it go? When we see Churchill Downs determined to make it happen? When we see Churchill Downs plan for the First Saturday in September.
We rejoice. Unequivocally. Without embarrassment or apologies. Even in these times, we make time to rejoice. And, sing a frame or two.
Earlier today, I saw a quote attributed to Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. When asked about moving the Kentucky Derby to September, Baffert said that the Kentucky Derby is “…just another horse race.”
Sorry, Bob. It is not just another horse race. Ask the waitress at Wagner’s. Ask the bartender at Check’s. Ask the valet at 21C Hotel. Ask anyone in Louisville. This ain’t just another horse race. If you feel that way? Stay home.
Earlier today, I saw quotes from people in the horse business and out who questioned the wisdom of even having the Derby this year. Some of the quotes from horse owners, who just can’t seem to breed one good enough to ever make it to the Derby field.
Sorry, peeps. Like Bill Carstanjen said this morning. “We have moved past it. It had to be done. We own it. We are going to make it a special day.” Amen to that.
Earlier today, I saw people on social media asking what happens to the Triple Crown; what happens to the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. I saw people making fun and casting dispersions on Churchill Downs and the Derby. I saw some people say that they would rather go to the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.. I saw some people ask if the Derby now becomes just a prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I saw some people laugh and say that there is no way that the Derby would attract the best horses in September, much less 20 horses.
Sorry, folks. I’m not too worried about the Travers Stakes. The Kentucky Derby is going to happen. Just hide and watch. And, we are going to make it special. That’s just what we do here, in our old and new Kentucky homes. We are the ones that invented how to make chicken salad from chicken shysters. Just ask the Colonel.
A special thank you to Churchill Downs for not giving up, or in. A special thank you to Churchill Downs for giving us a chance to have our special day. A special thank you to Churchill Downs for giving us Kentuckians our Kentucky Derby.
We won’t let you down Churchill Downs. We won’t.