Kentucky Derby reverses course, will run without fans for the first time

The Kentucky Derby will run without fans for the first time, Churchill Downs announced Friday, citing increasing COVID-19 cases in the area.

It will be the second Triple Crown race this year without spectators, following the Belmont Stakes in June. The Derby and Kentucky Oaks for fillies were postponed from May 1-2 to Sept. 4-5 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Churchill Downs had planned to limit attendance for the 146th Derby to 23,000. 

"We were confident in that plan, but dedicated to remaining flexible using the best and most reliable information available," the track said in a statement. "With the current significant increases in COVID-19 cases in Louisville as well as across the region, we needed to again revisit our planning.

"We deeply regret the disappointment this will bring to our loyal fans."

The track will refund ticket holders for all Derby week race dates.

Churchill Downs said its decision comes with support from Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, who said the virus continues to spread in the state. Beshear, a Democrat, also cited a White House announcement that Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County are considered a "red zone" for the virus.

Beshear added that the county had 2,300 new cases this week alone and applauded Churchill Downs for "making the right and responsible decision." 

Churchill Downs did not allow spectators for its delayed spring meet, which included the Derby's postponement from the first Saturday in May for the first time since 1945. The switch also shifted the Derby to the middle jewel of racing's Triple Crown, with the Preakness following on Oct. 3 in Baltimore.

Churchill Downs had based its attendance limit on 14% of the 2015 record of 170,513, with reserved seating limited to 40% occupancy. General admission would have been limited to the 26-acre infield.

Now, the Derby and Oaks will go off without anyone beneath the Twin Spires.

"It's unfortunate and I don't want to repeat it, obviously," Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery said at a news conference. "There are more important things, and right now the important thing is the safety of our community, of our guests."