Kentucky Derby Postponed: Third Leg Of A Triple Whammy To PA Horse Industry

Posted on March 16, 2020 - Last Updated on March 21, 2020

Horse racing in Pennsylvania is facing a triple-whammy. The Kentucky Derby is pushed back four months and race tracks are closing, all due to concerns surrounding COVID-19.

The third whammy is not a new one: the state government’s proposal to strip funds reserved for the horse industry and reallocate for college scholarships.

Kentucky Derby pushed from the traditional date in May

Along with most other sports with spring seasons, it was rumored the storied Kentucky Derby and related Triple Crown races could be either postponed or canceled.

The Churchill Downs leadership confirmed Tuesday morning during an investor call that the race will go off on Sept. 5, 2020. It’s the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. That Saturday is the traditional start of the college football season.

Additional points races are likely to get added as qualifiers for the Derby field.

WAVE3 News in Louisville, Kentucky dropped the same news on Monday night, citing multiple anonymous sources.

The WAVE3 report did not address the other legs of the Triple Crown. The Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Maryland is currently set for May 17 and the Belmont Stakes in New York for June 7.

However, Churchill Downs said those races should be rescheduled for September and October following discussions with NBC, which broadcasts all the legs of the Triple Crown.

Under the traditional Triple Crown schedule, if the Kentucky Derby is Sept. 5, the Preakness would be Sept. 19 and the Belmont on Oct. 10, according to the Washington Post.

Derby lifts PA horse race tracks

Derby Day, traditionally the first Saturday in May, has been postponed only once, during WW II. It’s a massive event for both Thoroughbred and harness tracks in PA, with numerous promotions built around the race. It’s easily the biggest day for racing handle in the state and the country.

PA casinos, even those without associated tracks, often set promotions with Derby Day themes. But then, of course, gaming facilities in PA are already shuttered.

Five-time Derby winner Bob Baffert said Saturday through a release at Santa Anita Park:

“Nobody’s really sure when anything is going to happen. Churchill is saying they’re not going to run the Derby without the people there, so I’m hearing maybe June or in September.”

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Spectators are part of the Derby’s tradition

The thought of running the race without spectators seemed blasphemous, as the Lexington Herald-Leader pointed out:

As horse racing continues at most tracks across America with no spectators in attendance, is the sport’s most important event ready to take the same drastic step? Would a Kentucky Derby with no fans present at Churchill Downs in Louisville really be a Kentucky Derby? Could race day go forward with no hats, no mint juleps — no people — none of the pageantry that has kept the venerable institution thriving for what is scheduled to be a 146th edition in 2020?

If the crisis has not subsided in time for a Kentucky Derby on the traditional First Saturday in May, is it possible the initial jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown could unfold at a later date?

Other horse tracks have postponed or canceled

Then there are other cancelations of racing due to concerns about the coronavirus. Tracks across the country are either shutting down or running without spectators, The Lines reports. Two tracks in neighboring New Jersey stopped running last week.

And then there was Keeneland‘s cancelation Monday of its spring meet in Lexington, Kentucky, likely a fatal blow for the Derby. The meet had featured two Kentucky Derby points races, critical for selecting the contestants for the Derby.

The cancelation also means no purses worth $4.6 million and forget about a $16.5 million race card.

But also a loss of tradition. As the Lexington Herald-Leader put it:

“No tailgating, no bread pudding and no racing: Keeneland on Monday canceled its entire 2020 spring racing meet…”

Back in PA, Parx Casino and Racing closed its meet last week. Penn National won’t resume racing on Thursday, as was scheduled.

And, with all PA casinos ordered closed by Wolf on Monday, the remaining tracks are likely to not begin racing when they were scheduled to start up in the spring.

And there is still the raid on the trust fund pending

Finally, there’s the attempted raid on a trust fund by Gov. Tom Wolf. While it hasn’t gained clear political traction – there is no announced sponsor – it also hasn’t gone away since Wolf announced his plan on February 4.

For now, it has cast a pall over the industry, spooking some breeders to consider consider relocating stock or even entire farms.

For now, Brian Sanfratello, secretary of the PA Horse Breeders Association, is taking the coronavirus’ effect on racing philosophically. “It’s for the betterment. People will make adjustments.”

Mark Egloff, who manages a breeding farm, knows the Derby was a “big day,” even for harness racing tracks, with “cross-pollination.”

Wolf’s plan a bigger threat than the virus in horse industry

But he and Sanfratello both said Wolf’s proposal to grab $204 million from the horse breeding trust fund remains a bigger worry for the horse industry.

“But maybe these other things will serve as a way out, a way to drop the bill and save face,” said Egloff.

For now, further discussion of the proposal by the Pennsylvania Race Horse Commission is on hold since the March 31 meeting is canceled due to coronavirus concerns. The next meeting is set for April 28.

In PA, racing is built around three thoroughbred tracks and three standardbred tracks, each paired with a casino. 

The thoroughbred tracks are:

  • Parx Casino in Bucks County
  • Presque Isle Downs & Casino in Erie County
  • Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course in Dauphin County

The standardbred harness tracks are:

  • The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono in Luzerne County
  • The Meadows Casino and Racetrack in Washington County
  • Harrah’s Philadelphia in Delaware County

Like the rest of the gaming industry right now, tracks are on hold, with their near future uncertain. Unfortunately for the horse racing industry in PA, their long-term future could also be in peril, if the governor’s administration gets its funding wish.

Kevin Shelly Avatar
Written by
Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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