History buffs have been quick to point to the post-World War II Kentucky Derby in 1945 as the last time the Run for the Roses wasn’t contested on the first Saturday in May. In early January 1945 War Mobilization director James Byrnes had ordered racing to cease. The ban was lifted May 9, the day after VE Day, or Victory in Europe Day, May 8, 1945.
The sport of Thoroughbred racing snapped back quickly. A hasty run-up had a field of 16 ready for the June 9 Derby. Fred Hooper’s Hoop, Jr. prepped for the big race by winning a division of the Wood Memorial Stakes May 30. Imagine that.
In the June 16, 1945 edition of The Blood-Horse editor J.A. Estes told us:
“Racing, since it weighed anchor last month, has gained full speed in a remarkably short period. Its sails are now bellied deep in a full breeze, and the old boat is really hitting it off over the bounding main. It’s quite a sight, the way she’s going.
“There is, in short, a tremendous new enthusiasm for racing. It has been manifested principally because people have money to enjoy something which, to some degree, had been denied them by the circumstances of previous years.”
The situation the industry faces today, however, is vastly different from the one 75 years ago.
In early summer 1945 the mood was euphoric. The country had defeated a great enemy and had another one, Japan, on the run. In today’s global pandemic we face an enemy we can’t see and know little about…and even less how to contain it effectively. While we’d like to think there’s an end game in sight, we’re kidding ourselves.
In this country COVID-19 wasn’t really taken seriously until a few weeks ago. While all the early indicators—school closures and travel restrictions—were originally listed as lasting a few weeks, we don’t know at this point how long they will continue. Our gut feeling is it will be later rather than sooner.
The pandemic has already had a devastating impact financially on local, national, and global commerce. Socially, things that were acceptable a month ago—even a week ago—are now taboo.
Once travel and commerce resumes, will there continue to be an appetite for people to congregate in large groups…attend a convention or large banquet…or even dine in a crowded restaurant?
This week’s announcement of delaying the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) to Sept. 5 was the right move for March 17. However, targets seem to be moving each and every day. Will it be seen as being the right move a month from now?
Think about this: Once the world comes out of an extended period without social interaction, we will quickly discover what the world can live with…and live without. Habits will change. Economic Darwinism will move at warp speed.
Our sport of Thoroughbred racing—collectively and collaboratively—needs to be very careful and make sure it remains relevant.