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Billy Reed: Hard to take, but coronavirus is victor on first Saturday in May; there’s an at-home party


The Kentucky Derby has been a big part of life ever since I covered my first one on May 7, 1966. The winner on that warm, breezy afternoon was Kauai King, who went wire-to-wire for owner Mike Ford and trainer Henry Forrest. In the jockeys’ room after the race, I heard winning rider Don Brumfield of Nicholasville, Ky., proclaim himself to be the “happiest hillbilly hardboot in the world.”

I was so captivated by the crowd, the traditions, and stories that I promised myself I’d be at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May for as long as I could stand up and move around. I’ve been true to that pledge. In the 54 years since then, I’ve missed the Derby only twice – once to receive a national journalism award in Omaha, the other to attend my older daughter’s college graduation.

At the beginning of this fateful year, the one that changed the world, I had a modest interest in Thousand Words, trained by the great Bob Baffert. But I also was looking at Mischievous Alex, who could have been named for a veterinarian I once knew; King Guillermo, because his last name is Spanish for William; and Storm the Court, because that’s such an obvious pick in basketball-crazy Kentucky.

But I won’t be at Churchill Downs next Saturday. Neither will the horses. For the first time since the race was first held in 1875, the Derby has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The proposed new date is the first Saturday in September.

In place of the Derby, Churchill will host a day-long, at-home Kentucky Derby party to raise $2 million for Coronavirus relief efforts. From 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., NBC will give viewers a special Derby show, featuring American Pharoah’s 2015 run to the Triple Crown. Then there will a virtual Derby among the 13 Triple Crown winners.

I applaud the track and NBC for trying to entertain us and keep alive the tradition of the first Saturday in May. But neither the Saturday event nor a Derby on Sept. 5 will come close to matching the real thing. I suppose the roses still will be red and the mint juleps palatable, but little else will be the even close to the real thing.

Somewhere, Col. Matt Winn is grieving.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

He’s the promotional genius who became president of Churchill in 1902 and worked tirelessly for 46 years to make the Derby the best-known horse race in the world. He guided the Derby through World War I and the Great Depression.

During World War II, when rubber was being rationed, the government encouraged him to cancel the Derby because it worried the country wouldn’t take kindly to so many rubber tires being used to attend a horse race.

But the ever-resourceful Winn came up with the idea that came to be known as the “Streetcar Derby.” He encouraged fans to come to Churchill either on foot or on the streetcars that ran from downtown to the track. No tickets were sold to out-of-towners, but the race still drew 65,000 customers.

In January 1945, the government banned all horse racing and it looked as if the Derby finally might be a victim of World War II. But America celebrated Victory in Europe Day on May 8, the ban on horse racing was lifted three days later, and Hoop Jr. won the 71st Derby on June 9. Until now that was the last time the Derby was not held on the first Saturday in May.

The Derby field in September probably will be different than the one which was scheduled to into the starting gate next Saturday. That’s because 3-year-old thoroughbreds are young horses who change almost daily. The field in September will not be well-seasoned, but the colts and fillies should be more mature physically.

A part of me wishes Churchill would just skip the Derby this year. If you can’t have the real thing, don’t have anything at all. But I’m sure Col. Winn would disagree. Just like circus owner P.T. Barnum and Broadway producers, he believed the show must go on regardless of the circumstances.

It’s going to be as strange for me next Saturday as it was for the typists who cover the NCAA Tournament and the Masters’ golf tournament. The basketball playoff is gone forever, but the Masters hasn’t given up. The rich white men who run the thing are considering holding it Nov. 9-15. But like the Derby’s new date, that’s completely contingent on the whims of the coronavirus.

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I expect horse racing, and maybe golf, have a chance to recover fairly quickly. Their problems aren’t nearly as grave as the NFL, NBA, NHL, and NCAA. But it’s folly to predict anything as long as the Coronavirus paralyzes our economy.

At least I have a pick for you – well, two picks actually – in the virtual Derby of Triple Crown winners.

If the horses are measured strictly by their performance in the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes, Secretariat is an easy winner. However, if a horse’s entire career is taken into account, I will move Secretariat down because he didn’t run as a 4-year-old and probably pick Citation, the 1948 Triple Crown winner for Calumet Farm outside Lexington.

For his career, Citation won eight of nine starts as a 2-year-old, 19 of 20 at three, two of nine with seven seconds at four, and three of seven at five, for heaven’s sake.

Sad to say, that’s all I have for you about the 2020 Kentucky Derby.

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See KyForward’s story about the Saturday’s Kentucky Derby at-home party.


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