Little did we know back in early February when we spent a snowy evening at Turfway Park what would come our way during the last 10 months of 2020. What followed might be best summarized by crazy, bizarre, exhilarating, isolated, thrilling, enlightening, and distanced. Let’s add challenging for good measure.
But that evening in Northern Kentucky was clearly a harbinger of things to come in a year in which we witnessed a full spectrum of emotions during our tour of Kentucky racetracks.
The reason for the trip was a “farewell” of sorts as at meet’s end the 61-year-old grandstand—at the track formerly known as Latonia—faced the wrecking ball. We spent the evening talking with horsemen and a crowd best described as “thin” and walked nearly every inch of the four-floor facility. We returned to Turfway March 14—as the COVID-19 pandemic first started to grip the nation—to witness the “owners only” Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) that was equally as sparse.
Sparse was an even better term for the scene April 30 along Longfield Avenue that runs the length of the backstretch of Churchill Downs. With the state’s signature events—the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) and Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1)—respectively postponed until the first Friday and Saturday in September, Longfield Avenue was forlorn, empty of vehicles and people with the lone exception of a single homeowner mowing her lawn.
Around the bend on South Fourth Street, Churchill Downs’ backstretch sentinel “Plummie” Bass manned the security gate, a mask and a pair of Playtex rubber gloves added to his security equipment. Across the street curbside pick-up was the only service option at the famed lunch counter Wagner’s Pharmacy.
“When I got up this morning I started to cry,” said Joanne Hellman, a Wagner’s employee for 19 years. “This is our week, this week. We look forward to all the trainers and their staff coming back and coming in here. It’s quite sad.
“This time of year we’re making more money than we can carry home, and now we’re not making enough to even open our wallets. We’re going to be a long time getting over this.”
Ellis Park opened its doors July 2 but only allowed 450 patrons per day. We shipped to the Henderson, Ky., track July 3 where the mood was a mixed bag of relief, hope, and caution.
“I talked to one gentleman yesterday who said he’d been to more opening days than he’s been married, and his wife had been to 57 opening days with him,” said track employee Kim Shafer. “He said, by far, this was the most shocking.”
Running a few weeks behind schedule, racing secretary Dan Bork was able to get about 400 horses on the grounds for the opening week. They have room for 900. However, horsemen being horsemen, the meet came together…and was actually successful considering the circumstances thanks to a rise in advance deposit wagering and expanded reach via TVG.
With Keeneland’s special July stand closed to media, we ventured back to Ellis for the Aug. 9 Runhappy Ellis Park Derby, which Art Collector won by a socially distanced 3 1/2 lengths. Breeder/owner Bruce Lunsford’s enthusiasm seemingly filled the near-empty apron.
The Labor Day weekend Kentucky Derby was reserved, as about 1,500 were on hand for the Run for the Roses instead of the usual 150,000. While the action was tense inside Churchill Downs, it was intensified outside the gates with protestors in support of Black Lives Matter and for Breonna Taylor, who had been killed during a “no-knock” raid by Louisville Metro Police in March.
With 45 minutes to post, a large, vocal contingent arrived via Central Avenue.
While taking some photos from the top level of the Top of the Stretch portion of the track, we were gently asked to move by a local law enforcement officer, who noted there were people pointing rifles at us.
Despite a summer-long threat, there was no disruption during the race, and within a few minutes after the Derby was made official, the crowd had dispersed.
Finally in the fall we were allowed on the grounds at Keeneland Nov. 3 to see an eerie sight of a near-empty apron and grandstand as horses prepped for the Nov. 6-7 Breeders’ Cup World Championships. We almost expected to see tumbleweeds bounding past but instead saw some of the best Thoroughbreds on the planet.
The Breeders’ Cup results were uplifting as were the prospects of a vaccine for COVID-19 that was announced days later.
Indeed, the year has been a wild one. Let’s hope it’s a singular sensation for the sake of those inside and outside the world of Thoroughbred breeding and racing. We like the prospects of 2021 bringing better days.