The Kentucky Derby — America's most celebrated horse race, which typically draws 150,000 spectators to the venerable Churchill Downs track — will be run this year with fans in the grandstands, officials said Thursday.
"The Run for the Roses," normally contested the first Saturday of May, had to be pushed back to Sept. 5 because of the coronavirus pandemic, and Churchill Downs President Kevin Flanery said Thursday that he had been in consultation with Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and state health officials over the decision to bring spectators back to the track that day.
"We are going to conduct Derby Week with fans," Flanery told reporters at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. "It's going to be a different experience. This is a different year."
Flanery did not give a specific number when asked how many fans would be allowed inside Churchill Downs that day, when the world's best 3-year-old horses gallop 1 1/4 miles in a race dubbed "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports."
He would only say that there will be "reduced capacities throughout the facility."
The race normally draws about 150,000 spectators — about 60,000 of them in permanent, reserved seats, with the rest in general admission.
Race officials hope to cut the general admission by more than 60 percent and reduce the number in reserved seats by up to 50 percent.
All of the 60,000 reserved seats have already been purchased, and the track hopes to get enough voluntary givebacks to make its goal.
"We are in the process of contacting each one of those seat holders to discuss their interest in attending: Do they still want the seats?" Churchill Downs spokesman Darren Rogers told NBC News on Thursday.
General admission holders on Sept. 5 will be kept to the infield of Churchill Downs. In normal years, a GA ticket could get a fan access to much of the facility's first floor as well.
The entire Churchill Downs facility is 1.6 million square feet, and Flanery said he believes fans can attend safely. But he added that plans for Sept. 5 are still developing.
"We will continue to be nimble," he said. "We will adjust to the facts as they are in the moment. But we have to make plans."
Kentucky is among those states that have meet the World Health Organization's recommended test-positivity rate of 5 percent or lower to go forward with business. Kentucky's rolling, seven-day rate was 3.82 percent as of Thursday morning.
The state is also in the lower half in terms of per capita deaths and infections.
The governor said the track's plans are acceptable.
“Churchill Downs submitted a comprehensive plan to state government that ensures that the Kentucky Derby will look very different this year, (but the changes) will help to protect the health and safety of every Kentuckian, which is my main priority," he told the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Other changes fans will see at Churchill Downs that day, officials said, will include:
- "Chef's table" buffets are being eliminated and points of other food sales will be spread out.
- All tickets will be mobile, to limit contact between fans and employees.
- Lines at betting windows will have markers to keep fans at some distance and internet access will be beefed up to make it easier for attendees to place wagers via cellphones.
- All employees will wear masks and some will don gloves, while fans will also be asked to cover their faces.
But Flanery stopped short of making masks mandatory for fans.
"We're going to be encouraging everybody to wear the mask," he said. "We'll work with folks. We're going to encourage them to do it. We'll be gently reminding folks."
The Kentucky Derby is usually the first of three races in horse racing's Triple Crown, followed by the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.
This year, the Belmont Stakes was run first. Tiz the Law won last Saturday, in front of empty grandstands at Belmont Park in Queens, New York.
The Preakness, at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, has been rescheduled for Oct. 3.