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Bill Carstanjen: Kentucky Derby tradition will move forward safely, responsibly with limited fans on site


On September 5th, in a little less than a month, we will hold the 146th consecutive running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs Racetrack. While this will be the first time since the waning days of World War II in 1945 that we have not run the race on the first Saturday in May, it was not a hard decision to postpone the event.

The global pandemic arrived with a fury and caused all of us to make extensive changes to our everyday lives as well as to our special celebrations.

Over the past several months as our country has faced both the spread of COVID-19 and then the increasing social and racial unrest sparked by the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, I’ve reflected constantly on the role of the Kentucky Derby and its importance to the social fabric of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Bill Carstenjen

At its essence, the Kentucky Derby is as much about the people, the fans, the community and our traditions as it is about the horse race itself. For me, and our team members, the Kentucky Derby is also the single most important contribution that we make as individuals and as a group to our community. It’s a labor of love and a responsibility that we each feel intensely.

It is our privilege to be able to welcome fans to Churchill Downs every year and this year most especially. Along with that privilege is our paramount responsibility to ensure the safety of our fans, team members and participants.

Over the last four months, we worked closely with Governor Beshear and his Administration, Louisville Metro Health Department, and medical experts to develop safety protocols that are best-in-class while staying flexible and ready to incorporate changes and new learnings. This week we announced enhanced, detailed health and safety standards beyond those we released in June.

A few of the key measures include:

• Greatly reduced guest capacity to less than 23,000 across our nearly 200-acre facility. By comparison, a record crowd of over 170,000 attended the Kentucky Derby in 2015.

• Requiring everyone on our property to wear masks other than when they are eating or drinking. This policy, and all others, will be rigorously enforced.

• Eliminating tickets for standing room only, “Walk Around” passes and all General Admission.

• Eliminating guest access to the Infield while also significantly restricting guest movements around the facility to primarily their ticketed area.

• Requiring temperature checks and medical screenings as a condition to admittance.

• Placing extensive signage throughout the property and training our team members to enforce all safety protocols.

Most years, we take it for granted that the Kentucky Derby is both a celebration and an inspiration for the people of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and beyond. With all the challenges facing our Nation, the atmosphere at this year’s Kentucky Derby will not be the celebration that it normally is.

However, we hope that this time-honored event will serve as a unifying force. Beyond the parties and the fun, the Kentucky Derby has always given us that additional gift. We are optimistic that it will again this year unite us, inspire us and remind us of the many things we all have in common.

We are also taking a close look at our practices, community partnerships and traditions to ensure we are carrying out the Derby in a way that honors and respects our city and all of the people in our community.

Ultimately, the Kentucky Derby belongs to the people of Kentucky and our country – it provides a special and memorable reason to come together every year, in person or virtually – almost always in the springtime on the first Saturday in May, but this year in September.

Whether you choose to join us at Churchill Downs Racetrack or watch on NBC, we are committed to delivering to you a wonderful experience that reminds you of the great times of the past and those to come in the future. I can’t wait to hear “Riders’ Up!” on September 5.

Bill Carstanjen is CEO of Churchill Downs Incorporated.


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