Even the Kentucky Derby, one of the most timeless events in all of sports and American pop culture, has been dramatically affected by Covid. After a year in which the Kentucky Derby was moved from its signature date of the first Saturday in May to September, the Kentucky Derby will be back to its traditional start date and will race on May 1 at 6:50pm — but not without a few changes because of Covid.
The most notable change will be the limited number of fans that are able to attend. While certainly an improvement over a Kentucky Derby with no fans, which is what we saw in September, seating will be limited to 40-50 percent capacity. For those worried that it will be too quiet, Churchill Downs at maximum capacity is larger than even the biggest college football stadiums. At maximum capacity, Churchill Downs can seat just over 165,000 people. Hearing a chorus of voices join together for the first few notes of “My Old Kentucky Home” will be especially moving this year. And of course, hearing the roar of the crowd after the starting gates open is a moment that rarely fails to produce goosebumps.
Another way that the Derby will be different this year due to the pandemic is that everyone in attendance will be required to wear a mask. Even those who are vaccinated are required to wear masks. If the Grammys are any indication, and the Kentucky Derby tends to attract a celebrity crowd, then perhaps we will see masks rival the hats in terms of key parts of outfits. I doubt we will see many paper masks; instead, masks will likely be as vibrant and playful as a face covering can possibly be.
For those who are attending the Derby at Churchill Downs, many attendees would consider the change to make grandstand seats all-inclusive an upgrade — and a change that may be here to stay. The rationale for the change to all-inclusive seats this year is that it would reduce people waiting in line for food and drinks and help to keep them in their more distanced seats. Unfortunately, many average Joes who are looking to attend may have difficulty finding a ticket, as the general-admission tickets are the ones being reduced to meet Covid guidelines and are only being sold in limited numbers.
Here is what won’t change due to Covid: Attendees will still arrive well dressed in preppy outfits and mint juleps will still be served. The horses will arrive and get adjusted to the track where the biggest race of their lives will occur. Many horses, including the early favorite Essential Quality, have already arrived in Kentucky.
Most importantly, fans everywhere are able to watch a breathtaking event where man and horse come together as one in order to fight for the grandest prize in their sport and all the glory that accompanies it.