ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Maryland Governor Larry Hogan issued an emergency order on Sunday effectively shutting down horse racing in the state, indefinitely. “The situation continues to evolve and will escalate rapidly and dramatically,” Governor Hogan said in his official press release. The governor went on to add “These are unprecedented actions in an extraordinary situation, but they could be the difference in saving lives and keeping people safe. Maryland became the first state to totally shutdown horse racing, although Turf Parkway (Arizona) and Parx Racing (Pennsylvania) both voluntarily ceased racing individually.
His order closed all racetracks, casinos and simulcast betting facilities (Off Track Betting) in the state to the public, effective at midnight Sunday night. Six different horse tracks in Maryland were closed: Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course, Timonium Race Course, Fair Hills Races, Rosecroft Raceway and Ocean Downs. The two most prominent being Laurel Park (Laurel) where they are in the middle of a spring meet and Pimlico Race Course (Baltimore), home of the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes and most notably, The Preakness Stakes. The Preakness Stakes is the second jewel in the Triple Crown and, as for right now, it seems it’s impossible it will be run on it’s scheduled date of May 16, 2020.
Racing on the scheduled date was made even more improbable when it was announced on Tuesday that the Kentucky Derby would be moved to September 5. According to the Kentucky Derby’s website, “This is not a decision we take lightly.” The Kentucky Oaks has been moved to September 4, as well. According to the Derby’s press release, “These dates are contingent upon final approval from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission which we expect to receive on Thursday, March 19.”
Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said of the decision “throughout the rapid development of the COVID-19 pandemic, our first priority has been how to beat protect the safety and health of our guests, team members and community. As the situation evolved, we steadily made all necessary operational adjustments to provide the safest experience and environment.” Carstanjen went on to say “The most recent developments have led us to make some very difficult decisions and our hearts are with those who have been or continue to be affected by this pandemic.”
Hall of Fame trainer and 5-time Derby champ, Bob Baffert, this past weekend had said he was hearing that June or September might be the earliest the Derby will be run this year. “Churchill [Downs] is saying they’re not going to run the Derby without the people there so I’m hearing maybe June or in September.” More proof that no one has their thumb on the pulse of thoroughbred racing like Robert A. Baffert.
September 5 (Labor Day Weekend) is the new (scheduled) day, meaning it would potentially have to compete against the first weekend of college football which isn’t ideal. NBC broadcasts the Derby, but they also broadcast Notre Dame football in fall. The Fighting Irish do not play that afternoon so that might have played into the new date. NBC broadcasts all three Triple Crown races and with the Preakness and Belmont theoretically moved as well, it will be interesting to see how NBC juggles the race broadcasts with Notre Dame.
Add this with indefinite shutdown of horse racing in Maryland, along with New York State already nearing 1,000 reported COVID-19 cases and the American Triple Crown series will look like it never has before.
The Derby, originally scheduled for Saturday, May 2, is regularly attended by over 150,000 spectators. If the Derby were to end up ultimately being canceled entirely, it would mean an estimated $400 million in lost revenues for the Louisville area. The Kentucky Derby has only been run outside of May two other times. The first was April 29, 1901 and June 9, 1945, neither coming close to how far away this year’s Derby will be run.
With at least the Derby being run in September, things get even more interesting in terms of historical records. Every race horse’s birthday is January 1 but obviously not every horse is born on January 1. Thoroughbred horses can be born anytime between February and September meaning that despite all the Triple Crown race participants being “three year olds” some entrants might actually have been on this earth less than three years, while other could be well into their third year of life. The horses that are peaking and hitting their top form in May and early June might not be the same horses that would be doing the same in September or October. This means at a minimum, it is highly unlikely that whatever horses win the Derby, Preakness and Belmont this year are probably not the horses who would have won them in a regular year. Trainers right now have their horses geared towards May 2 and they will all now have to change their training towards a September 5 date. The trainers will definitely earn their money know 2020. The Maryland closures to the public do not effect training at the tracks so, hopefully for the physical health of these amazing athletes, they will be able to continue racing, just in front of empty stands.
The other unknowns remain as to the dates of the Preakness And Belmont. Will they be run before the Derby? Will they still be two and five weeks after the Derby? The same time frame would put Preakness on September 19 and the Belmont Stakes on October 10. On September 19, Notre Dame hosts Western Michigan at 2:30pm, perhaps they can make that game a night game. October 10 the Irish host Stanford at 7:30 so that date might work with very little movement on Notre Dame’s part.
Horse racing had remained the last bastion of sports in the United States. These are sad times in the world but these steps are completely necessary to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic. These are extreme measures but this pandemic is so much bigger than horse racing and so much bigger than sports. The safety of all of us on this earth supersedes anything else. We will overcome. Someday, sports will return and maybe this horrible ordeal will make us appreciate them even more.