By Arnie Leshin
The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home, but at Churchill Downs in Louisville Saturday, it was only a reminder of the day that wasn’t when the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby was shut down.
For the first time since World War II ended in 1945, Churchill Downs stood silent the first Saturday in May, For an event that embodies spring and engenders hopes of formality and fuss that wouldn’t seem right for the colder months, perhaps the best place to start was with the flowers replacing the absence of both horses and people.
They shimmered on this particular day. They were lush under a cloudless sky so idyllic. It seemed to taunt the Louisianans who put up with soggy events in the past three years only to be awarded with sunshine and a light breeze on the first morning of the postponed Derby since Germany and Japan surrendered 76 years ago.
The flowers appeared in a banquet on the statue of 2006 Derby winner Barbaro outside the gates, left on an offering along with a sign that read “Churchill Downs/Louisville, Kentucky/Vaccine Derby, “The race is On,” “Brought to You by Corona.” In the infield, they were planted in the shape of a horseshoe.
Like everything else, they were different this year, red gardenias instead of roses. The stables and stands sat open and empty on this day at Churchill. Cyclists, runners and out-of-towners on day trips gathered outside the track’s gates to take pictures with Barbaro and pay their respects for a Derby moved from Saturday to Sept. 5 due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, just the third time in history the race has been held outside the month of May.
No more than 10 or so gathered at a time the state remains under a state-at-home order from Gov. Andy Beshear.
Central Avenue, which leads from downtown Louisville to the track, was missing its usual thicket of traffic. The silence in surrounding neighborhoods was eerie, as vendors were gone and residents couldn’t offer up their front lawns for parking.
Wagner’s is the famous dinner established in 1922 that has grown synonymous with the Derby. On its website it says “Wagner’s is Churchill Downs; Churchill Downs is Wagner’s.” But it was closed Saturday and its parking lot was empty. Other businesses opened but were slow on what is usually their most lucrative day of the year. At Sissy’s Liquors, located in a residential district two blocks from the grounds, clerks sat behind the counter and talked in an empty store.
Nothing was going on. Everybody was missing. There was way more inventory, double, maybe triple, but there was still hope it will all come back in September, it’s just too big a day to forget.
As for the Downs itself, it looked crispy white and majestic, properly manicured and showing off for all the 30 masked journalists stomping around, many of whom dressed for the occasion. For some, it was the first sighting of a pocket square in some time.
For others who had never been here before, it was difficult to imagine what this day is like,150,000 people, and a jam-packed site at this legendary race track that is the first of the Triple Crown races to run, and followed by the Preakness Stakes at Pimllco in Baltimore, and the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y. When the gates open at 8 a.m., they literally run for the benches to get their spots and just have a great time. It’s a sense of community that is unmatched to anything you’ve ever been in.
What follows is the photo-takers at the track’s front gates that include both those who had planned a trip and those who woke up and simply felt the place’s pull. But not this past weekend, one that everybody worked for through the many years. And all the hotels were empty. The restaurants? You can’t even go in. Usually, it’s a big family affair. People who don’t come (to Churchill Downs) host Derby parties and maybe do a little betting on the side, it’s a rite of passage in the spring.
Now it all stood still. Now it became a joke to say don’t plant your flowers until Derby weekend rescheduled for Sept. 5, but Kentucky’s done the right thing, even though it’s kind of weird because you don’t know what else to do except to see you in September. There would then be fancy-dressing women young and old sporting wide-brimmed hats to the occasion, same with the men and their classic hats and fancy cigars, and mint tulips the usual treat for all.
No doubt there’s a sense of loss, sort of, for Kentuckians, but at the same time their response has been remarkable, and they found their way to celebrate now and then. Churchill Downs is expected to start full racing days in May, and that would be just the right way to rally around the weekend of Sept. 5.