Hats Off: A Not-So Exciting 2 Minutes As Kentucky Derby Postponed

Written By Dave Bontempo on March 17, 2020 - Last Updated on December 12, 2023
Churchill Downs announces the delay of the Kentucky Derby

New Jersey sports betting took another blow on Monday. The year of coronavirus calamity took another high-profile victim Monday. The famed Kentucky Derby will be moved from May 2 until Sept. 5.

Presumably, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, linked to the Derby via the Triple Crown series, would follow in late September or October. But that remains to be worked out.

The last time the Kentucky Derby wasn’t held on the first Saturday in May was in 1945, when the government issued a ban on horse racing because of World War II.

The ban was lifted on V-E Day (May 8), and the Derby was held on June 9. The only other year the Derby wasn’t held in May was in 1901, when it was raced on April 29.

A September Derby will butt heads with early-season college football, but the date change has been a foregone conclusion for several days.

Churchill Downs, the site of the most famous two minutes in sports, said it wanted to hold the 146th running of the Derby in front of spectators.

This was an attempt to retain tradition, the promotional fuel that almost makes the Derby thrive with no effort. The declaration was a line in the sand and betting on the Derby to remain in its traditional slot, the first Saturday in May, became a long-shot.

Horse racing in the US now joins other sports in canceling or suspending events in an attempt to flatten the coronavirus curve, including:

  • March Madness
  • NHL
  • NBA
  • XFL
  • MLB

But its business model holds an edge over all of them.

Bettors maintain choice

Some bettors might turn to NJ online casinos to fill the gap, but the tried and true horse bettor wants to find the next post time. Lucky for them, and despite Churchill Downs’ decision, racing has found a way to preserve some betting.

Most major tracks have shut down attendance, but run their meets for the benefit of horsemen and horse betting.

Fans don’t like it, but gamblers are relieved.

Both NJ racetracks are closed to fans. Meadowlands announced it was closing at 8 p.m. on Monday, along with all nine Atlantic City casinos. Monmouth Park isn’t scheduled to open until May.

Horse betting on races that choose to run without spectators remains an option in the Garden State via 4NJBETS.com, powered by TVG. They are connected to nearly all the major establishments, and the press of a finger makes their bets live.

The apps and mobile technology have gone beyond their initial role of wagering enhancement. They now provide a buffer for the loss of live-event income. They are a key financial component to the game.

The Derby might be delayed, but horse betting is alive

On March 28, the $12 million Dubai World Cup announced it would be running without spectators.

Gulfstream Park in Florida began barring spectators last Saturday but plans to run the Florida Derby, also on March 28.

The $1 million Florida Derby, has produced 44 starters who have gone on to win 59 Triple Crown events.  It will be part of a Derby Day with seven stakes, four graded, with total stakes purses of $1.950 million. One of those four stakes will be the $250,000 Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2), the 3-year-old filly counterpart to the Derby.

Although Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields are closed to the public, both will continue to race as scheduled, with personnel licensed by the California Horse Racing Board allowed to attend.

Live racing at the Aqueduct winter meet in March is conducted Friday through Sunday. It will also be held behind closed doors.

Racing at Aqueduct is slated to continue through the conclusion of the spring meet on April 19. Live racing will then move to Belmont Park for the 51-day spring/summer meet, which kicks off on April 24.

The scene is similar at other popular racing establishments:

  • Keeneland
  • Oaklawn
  • Tampa Bay Downs
  • Laurel

Racing and betting, yes. Fans, no.

The tracks make a noteworthy tradeoff. Losing on-site handle and the passionate screams of engaged fans definitely impact the character of the races.

Yet track officials believe that wagering income, derived via simulcasting, online betting apps such as TVG, and gaming facilities, make a large enough contribution to keeping the races going.

Without wagering handle, tracks could not pay the purses. Racing with no fans is not an ideal compromise, and some simulcast operations are also shut down for now by state officials, but tracks will ride this situation out.

And then they’ll have to address public-relations problems with their fan base.

Gulfstream Park told patrons on March 13 that they would not be allowed to attend the following day. Saturday is the track’s biggest handle of the week. The short-notice upset plans for many people who only attend races on Saturday.

It will be interesting to see how tracks address that situation.

Churchill Downs, meanwhile, had a more complex decision.

Churchill Downs faced a difficult choice

The Kentucky Derby shift was shocking to some, a matter of practicality to others. Practicality is painful.

The Derby routinely draws more than 150,000 fans. Attendance has been one of its fabled trademarks, denoting the Run for the Roses as a signature event. The Derby has deep appeal, crossing age, income and gender lines. A millionaire can enjoy the same event as a $2 bettor.

This is where champion horses launched successful Triple Crown campaigns since the 1970s, including:

  • Secretariat
  • Seattle Slew
  • Affirmed
  • American Pharoah
  • Justify

All subsequently won the Preakness and Belmont stakes in the five weeks that followed.

Something else the Derby did not want to lose was its multimillion-dollar impact on the local economy.

A logistical problem here involved booking hotel rooms and airline travel for the legions descending upon Louisville.  If officials waited for the virus and its fear to subside, they would have been faced a coin-toss decision on this event in early April.

On one side of the coin is the uncertainty fears around the coronavirus generates.

Shutdowns in the airline industry and the atmosphere of caution, linked with forced school and casino closings, would have hampered attendance and residual business had the race gone forward. Had it been blessed to go forward and canceled later, the mess would have intensified.

On the other side is a judgment is that the crisis might be over by May 2. Purists have held out that hope.

In the end, this was a coin flip the Derby did not want.

Dave Bontempo Avatar
Written by
Dave Bontempo

Dave Bontempo, a multiple national award-winning boxing commentator and writer, authors NFL betting columns for the Press of Atlantic City and others. He writes about all major sports in the booming legal New Jersey sports betting industry. Dave also hosts the Why Eagles Why podcast. Dave is a member of the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame and the Atlantic City International Boxing Hall of Fame.

View all posts by Dave Bontempo
Privacy Policy