While Louisville and Churchill Downs remain quarantined—at least for another week as the backside is set to open May 11 with racing expected to resume May 16—Oaklawn Park’s 2020 season ended in a blaze of glory. Racing in Hot Springs, Ark., continued as most other major-market tracks were closed for the last two weeks amid COVID-19 shutdowns and offered the sport a national lifeline hopefully getting us to the “other side.”
To no one’s surprise, trainer Bob Baffert unleashed a one-two punch with Charlatan and Nadal to take both halves of a split Arkansas Derby (G1). Chester Thomas’ Allied Racing’s By My Standards proved to be among the best older horses in training with his score in the Oaklawn Handicap (G2). Handle of more than $41 million on the track’s closing day was encouraging.
Those were the big winners. Sadly, there were far more losers on the weekend.
The city of Louisville, specifically the surrounding neighborhood around Churchill Downs, took a tremendous financial hit. Hotels were empty of patrons and employees; Uber drivers idled; bars and restaurants that might have customers lined up to the curb to gain entrance were closed or only able to serve “curbside.”
Take a moment to think of all the additional part-time help Churchill Downs hires each spring for the Derby/Oaks weekend. Temporary tellers missed a big weekend of extra pay; extra security wasn’t signed on to work; and food prep, hospitality, and bartenders were shut out of a weekend that conservatively generates gratuities in the seven figures each day. And we’ve yet to consider the plight of the local horsemen, grooms, and riders that missed out on one of the bigger paydays of the year.
Of course, we’re counting on a Kentucky Derby this year—Sept. 5—but with concerns for gatherings of any size and social distancing, it is hard to imagine it being the same size and scope of what it would have been last weekend.
However, Thoroughbred sales companies had one of their better weeks even though they failed to sell a horse. In a perestroika move with Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland, it was announced the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July yearling sale and its Saratoga select yearling sale and sale of preferred New York-bred yearlings will slide down the calendar to just after the Derby and all take place in Lexington before Keeneland’s September yearling sale. While a blow to the city of Saratoga Springs, it’s an efficient move for the industry to continue the life cycle of the industry. The added time will also allow for the results of the 2-year-old sales, which have been moved to June and July, to be tallied and the money distributed so yearling-to-juvenile pinhookers will have some working capital.
There was further collaboration April 30 with a joint announcement from Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland regarding medication policies that will restrict the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, and bronchodilators, including clenbuterol, at all sales. As Thoroughbred racing has come under intense scrutiny regarding medication use, it is a smart move to insure further transparency in the auction process. Anything that can be done to instill confidence in the buyer is a positive.
A negative note in the sales arena is the loss of Dennis Henry Lynch, a 25-year veteran of the Fasig-Tipton team who lost his battle with cancer May 1. The 68-year-old horseman worked at The Blood-Horse back in the late 1970s before running his own bloodstock agency. He joined Fasig-Tipton in 1995 and “had unique skills of both getting along with people and identifying really good horses,” according to the sale company’s president Boyd Browning Jr.
To add to that was the glint in Lynch’s eyes when he launched into one of his many stories, as well as his enthusiasm and spark when he got behind a cause. His departure might well be the industry’s biggest Derby weekend loss.