Kentucky Derby 2020: The 146th running of the Kentucky Derby is going to be one of the strongest editions of America’s most famous race, beginning with the date of the race: The first Saturday in September rather than its traditional place on the calendar in May.
Like many other sporting events this year, the Derby will not have its usual crowd buzz or pageantry. No swells with pocket squares, or dressed up women in fancy hats. There will be no spectators present because of the coronavirus pandemic — or not many, at least, as horse owners will be allowed on the grounds.
The upended calendar, however, did open the door to some new trainers and horses with unusual credentials. The trainer Saffie Joseph Jr., for example, is here for the first time with a colt named Ny Traffic, who tuned up by running second in the Matt Winn and Haskell Stakes.
The race in Louisville will have a smaller field than usual, no spectators and run as protests continue nearby after the police killing of Breonna Taylor in the city earlier this year.
“The Derby means everything to me,” said Joseph, 33, a native of Barbados. “That’s why we came here. We hoped to one day win the Kentucky Derby, and now, to be in the position where we have a chance, we are very fortunate and blessed. We are just trying to take it all in.”
The race will go on, under protest.
With the Derby running in the city where Breonna Taylor was killed in her apartment by the police in March, it has become a focus of the Black Lives Matter movement. A coalition of activist groups has called for a boycott of the race and its sponsors. They have promised to conduct a peaceful protest in a park near Churchill Downs on Saturday.
The racetrack’s leadership released a statement Thursday to explain their decision to hold the races.
“We know there are some who disagree with our decision to run the Kentucky Derby this year,” the statement said. “We respect that point of view but made our decision in the belief that traditions can remind us of what binds us together as Americans, even as we seek to acknowledge and repair the terrible pain that rends us apart.
“Our sport shares a disconcerting history that led to the exclusion of Black jockey participation through the years,” the statement continued. “The legacy of the Kentucky Derby begins with the incredible success of Black jockeys. We feel it is imperative to acknowledge the painful truths that led to their exclusion. Churchill Downs strongly believes in preserving and sharing the stories of the Black jockeys who are a critical part of this tradition. This is not a new commitment, but we continue to seek ways to share these stories and honor these athletes.”
An African-American jockey, Oliver Lewis, won the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875. He claimed victory aboard Aristides, a horse trained by Ansel Williamson, who was born into slavery. In the years after the Civil War, Black jockeys dominated horse racing, winning 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derbys and becoming celebrities, much like today’s N.B.A. stars.
In their statement, Churchill Downs officials hinted at changes.
“We recognize that people in our community and across our nation are hurting right now,” it said. “The atmosphere of the Kentucky Derby will be different this year as we respond to those calls for change. This will be a Derby unlike any other. As it should be.”
There was some speculation as to whether or not “My Old Kentucky Home” would be played as the horses come on to the track, as has been tradition since 1921. The song, written by Stephen Foster, has a complicated history. The original lyrics, according to Smithsonian Magazine, were not a tribute to the Old South but a condemnation of Kentucky slave owners “who sold husbands away from their wives and mothers away from their children.”
In a tweet Friday, the Churchill spokesman Darren Rogers said the song, indeed, would be part of the pre-race pageantry. But moment of silence will take place before the playing of the song.
“After careful consideration, My Old Kentucky Home will be played this year prior to the @KentuckyDerby,” Rogers posted on the racetrack’s official public relations account. “However, the 100-year tradition of singing the state song of Kentucky has been thoughtfully & appropriately modified & will be preceded by a moment of silence and reflection.”