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Billy Reed: We must hope Churchill Downs comes to its senses; big Derby crowd is too great a risk

In announcing Churchill Downs plan for what’s left of the Kentucky Derby, track president Kevin Flanery said in a news release, “We’re optimistic that this time-honored event, which belongs to our community and our country, will serve as a progressive and unifying force that can help bring us together.”

Really? I would like to think Flanery is right. Instead, I’m wondering what they are drinking or smoking in the Churchill corporate offices. I have loved and supported the Derby for most of my life. I have missed only two since 1966. And yet I dread what might happen at Churchill on Saturday, Sept. 25, when the substitute for the 146th Run for the Roses in scheduled to be held.

I can’t see why Churchill won’t follow the pattern set by other hosts of major sporting events. Run the event without fans, in other words. Just bite the bullet, take the huge financial hit, and hope for a return of some semblance of “normalcy” next year.

Instead, the track has released a 62-page “safety” plan to accommodate around 23,000 customers to attend the event, which is about 14 percent of the track’s capacity. The plan embraces many of the protocols to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, making it as un-Derby-like as possible. Still, it’s difficult to imagine 23,000 people getting together at this time without generating new cases of the disease.

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.

Besides, Churchill must deal with something more serious than any of the other majority events faced: the murder of Breonna Taylor by police, which became a national story coming so soon after Minneapolis police had murdered George Floyd. For weeks, downtown Louisville was a disaster area at night, with some businesses boarding up windows and doors for protection.

Many of the same groups that turned violent in both places have pledged to be at Churchill on Derby Day, ready to take advantage of the national media that will be in town.

One group, for example, has urged Churchill to cancel the Derby in Taylor’s honor. Since Churchill isn’t going to do that, there’s no telling how that group will respond.

Sadly, Churchill’s decision puts the businesses and homes around the tracks at risk not because of legitimate protestors, but the looters and burners who always attach themselves to demonstrations of any kind. All the police in the world can’t stop them from doing their ugly best to make a bad situation worse.

With some three weeks to go, Gov. Andy Beshear, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, and Flanery still have time to do the prudent thing. Of course, that means getting a policy that no fans will be allowed to attend this year’s Derby. Consider the risks to the public, which are huge, compared to the gains, which only will enhance Churchill’s bottom line.

The race will have a winner and go down in the record books, just as happened with the Belmont Stakes (which makes up the Triple Crown along with the Derby and the Preakness in Maryland), the Blue Grass Stakes, the Travers, and other major races. All were run without incident before empty stands.

So what makes the Derby different, except for the Taylor case, which only makes it worse. I’ve heard from several different sources that the three cops who killed Taylor are unlikely to be arrested or charged with anything. If those reports are true, the announcement could turn Louisville into one of the most dangerous places in the country.

Put in this context, a horse race becomes relatively unimportant, including one as prestigious as the Derby, and Flanery’s comments about the race bringing the community and country together seem naïve and out of touch with reality.

But if Churchill persists with its plan to let 23,000 attend the Derby, we must hope and pray he is right because the alternative is too grim to contemplate.

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