Speaking Up at the Downs - By Evan Hammonds

Events since early March 2020—both health-related and society-related—are reshaping America, and the planet for that matter, at a pace unimaginable a year ago. The pandemic is widening the chasm between the maskers and the non-maskers, the employed and the impoverished, the haves and the have-nots. Flashpoint events in Minneapolis, Minn., Louisville, Ky., and most recently, Kenosha, Wisc., have brought a harsh light on social injustice in the United States.

The sporting world has pivoted to take a lead role in awareness. The National Basketball Association took the lead, stepping outside its “bubble” in Orlando, Fla., halting its playoff format for three days in protest. Most other professional sports, including Major League Baseball,  joined in. Football squads—professional and collegiate—suspended practices.

Thoroughbred racing, on the other hand, continued without skipping a beat. Saratoga and Gulfstream raced on, and while they weren’t racing, training at the major training centers in Southern California and Kentucky kept right on galloping. It’s not to say there weren’t discussions about what is going on, but little was said, or posted, publicly. Talk about a missed opportunity.

One of the few voices in racing to speak up was TVG, which posted the following:

“At TVG, we reject racial injustice in every form, and are proud to be part of a community where players and organizations are making their voices heard. We support our league partners and all players, teams, and coaches who are taking a stance. We stand in solidarity with the black community. Black Lives Matter.”

The coming Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), even without the proposed 23,000 fans in attendance, is planned to be the site of protests Labor Day weekend. Nerves in Louisville were exposed raw following protests/rioting after the death of Breonna Taylor during a “no knock warrant” invasion of her home March 13 by the Louisville Metro Police. Emotions remain frayed, and many businesses downtown remain boarded up.

A member of the Louisville city council estimated that 95% of the people protesting are doing so for the right reasons and want their voices heard and 5% are out to cause destruction and chaos.

The group Until Freedom is organizing a march Derby day that will finish up at the Downs.

In a “regular” Derby scenario the local police are mainly used for traffic and security. That changed with COVID-19’s putting the kibosh on fans in the stands. The Metro City Council and Louisville Metro Police expect there to be protesting around Churchill Downs for the city’s signature event.

“We are not going to have the same level of traffic detail that we normally would; however, because we have been having civil unrest and there are different groups saying they want to be around Churchill Downs to protest, we’ll have lots of officers and security in the area,” said police spokesperson Jessie Halladay.

The Derby, for the city of Louisville, is a platform to advance the narrative.

“We’re all hands on deck trying to get our city back and addressing the things that people are upset about and trying to use the political will of the time to get those changes made and make sure everybody in our city is treated fairly and equally under the code of law,” the councilperson said. “A lot of times that is easier said than done, especially with COVID-19. I say all of the time, ‘It took 400 years to get where we are; it’s not going to be fixed in the next four hours.’ Change is going to happen, but we are going to love each other when we get to the other side.”

As for the Derby, this is one year when the story lines off the track might take precedence over what happens on the track.

“Thinking about COVID, and postponing the Derby, which has only been done one other time (for World War II)…it’s clearly historic no matter what,” Halladay said. “This is one we won’t forget.”

She’s got that right.

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