Louisville adjusts to new date and season for Kentucky Derby

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Postponing the Kentucky Derby was jarring enough for a city that draws much of its identity from hosting horse racing’s marquee event.

Canceling it, well, that’s unthinkable in the Bluegrass State.

The move of the Triple Crown’s first leg to Labor Day weekend due to the coronavirus pandemic will mark the first time the Derby won’t run in Louisville on the first Saturday in May since 1945.

“This is what makes Louisville great, obviously, and Kentucky great,” said Andy Treinen, president and CEO of the downtown Frazier History Museum. “The race is important and all eyes in the world are on Louisville at that time.

“That doesn’t mean they won’t work in the summer. I hope that they do. If we survive this period because of COVID-19 coronavirus and I think we will, what does that look like in the summer? Because the summer’s already heavily scheduled around here.”

The Associated Press is looking at the impact of the cancellation or postponement of some iconic sporting events due to the coronavirus pandemic is having on cities and communities. Churchill Downs never considered canceling the 146th Derby. Louisville Tourism estimates the economic impact of Kentucky Derby season on the region at more than $400 million, a figure that includes the Kentucky Oaks race for fillies run the day before the Derby.

Instead of canceling the race, it was postponed; the race was moved from May 2 to Sept. 5. Whether the $400 million estimate holds up this fall remains to be seen with the Derby running on a holiday weekend that also kicks off the college football season.

Another consideration is how the region’s mindset shifts from the Derby being a rite of spring to closing out the summer.

But fans, patrons and business owners have time to adjust as Louisville breaths a sign of relief – for now.

“This is a far better scenario than canceling, so we hope the race in September will help mitigate that economic impact over the next few months,” said Sarah Davasher-Wisdom, president and CEO of Greater Louisville Inc., the Metro Chamber of Commerce.

“You ask anybody here in Louisville, most people are not concerned about the difference between May and September. They were concerned that it would be canceled, and the fact that it wasn’t is a big relief.”

While the Kentucky Derby remains on the sports docket, its new calendar date might confuse fans accustomed to women in big, colorful hats and men in bright seersucker suits. Spectators sip mint juleps featuring Kentucky’s trademark bourbon, and cigar smoke wafts through the air.

Louisville prides itself on those Derby scenes.

The hope is that they continue in September, ideally with the Derby kicking off a rescheduled Triple Crown if the Preakness and Belmont Stakes also move to fall.

For businesses that generate much of their revenue from the Derby, the postponement has created an immediate challenge of filling the calendar with work and clients. That has become difficult with many restaurants and retail outlets in the Bluegrass State closing because of the pandemic.

A delayed Derby has forced milliner and Louisville native Kenzie Kapp to temporarily stop creating those women’s hats synonymous with race season. She has been left scrambling to find ideas befitting a signature event that’s a little too early for earthy tones.

“When I think of Labor Day, I think of it as summer and it’s usually the hottest time and sticky,” said Kapp, who has owned the Mill by Kenzie since 2008. “Doing the Derby in May, you have your spring, bright colors. I don’t really think that palette’s going to apply unless you have specific people that come in and want really fall colors.

“I’m not going to go browns, oranges and yellows if it’s a hundred degrees out.”

Cigar maker Jason Shepherd also hoped the Derby would again spike business after the winter doldrums. The two-week period that begins with the Thunder Over Louisville air show helps generate about 25 percent of the income for his store located a few miles from Churchill Downs.

J. Shepherd Cigars had eight parties planned for Derby week, and the owner isn’t sure if those clients will return four months later.

“With the weather changing and being able to be outside, I will start booking events again,” Shepherd said. “Especially after being quarantined, people are itching to get out and do something. I’ll focus on doing my oldest events since we lost this huge event.

“It’s all up in the air. … But we’re going to try to keep moving and pushing forward like we always do.”

The bourbon industry is also having to adjust. Distillery tours are on hold because of coronavirus precautions, but activity figures to quickly ramp up if and when restrictions are lifted, including Derby preparations since it’s hard to imagine one without the other in this region.

“We’ll just shift to the new timing,” Heaven Hill Brands president Lauren Cherry said.

Meanwhile, Louisville is remaining optimistic about the delay.

“September is a wonderful time to be in Kentucky,” Davasher-Wisdom said. “The weather is great, it’s bourbon month and there are also several live music festivals, so this may work out.”

Newgate wins Robert B. Lewis Stakes; Baffert runs 1-2-3-4

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Newgate won the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes by a neck, with Bob Baffert as the trainer of all four horses in the Kentucky Derby prep race at Santa Anita.

Ridden by Frankie Dettori, Newgate ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.11 and paid $4 and $2.60 as the even-money favorite. There was no show wagering because of the field size.

Hard to Figure returned $5.20 at 12-1 odds. Worcester was another 1 3/4 lengths back in third. Arabian Lion was fourth.

“So much improvement in all these horses,” Baffert said. “I was actually nervous before the race, worried that something weird might happen, but I can relax now.”

The Lewis was a Kentucky Derby prep race, but no points were awarded because Baffert has been banned for two years by Churchill Downs Inc. The Hall of Fame trainer was in Louisville to testify in federal court as he seeks a temporary injunction to end the suspension, which runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet. It was meted out following a failed drug test by Medina Spirit after the colt finished first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

Newgate earned his first graded stakes victory. The colt was second, beaten by a neck in the Sham Stakes last month in his previous start.

“Frankie Dettori has been teaching him how to just sit back, relax and come with a punch and that’s what he did today,” Baffert said.

The victory, worth $120,000, increased Newgate’s career earnings to $241,975, with two wins in six starts.

Baffert: 2-year Churchill Downs suspension hurt reputation

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs never gave advance notice nor reached out to explain its two-year suspension, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said in federal court, and reiterated that the penalty has caused irreparable harm to his business and reputation.

Baffert has sued the historic track and is seeking a temporary injunction to stop his suspension following a failed drug test by the now-deceased Medina Spirit after the colt came in first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

The suspension for a series of failed tests by his horses runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet and could exclude Baffert from the Derby for a second consecutive spring.

Almost a year ago, Kentucky racing officials disqualified Medina Spirit and suspended Baffert for 90 days for those failed tests. Churchill Downs elevated Derby runner-up Mandaloun to winner.

“They’ve hurt my reputation,” Baffert said during nearly two hours of testimony in U.S. District Court. “My horses should’ve made much more money. I didn’t run for 90 days, and I had to let people go.”

Churchill Downs wants the case dismissed, citing nine failed tests by Baffert-trained horses as justification for disciplining horse racing’s most visible figure. The list of violators includes 2020 Kentucky Oaks third-place finisher Gamine, who was ultimately disqualified.

Medina Spirit failed his test for having in his system the corticosteroid betamethasone, which Baffert and attorney Clark Brewster have argued came from an ointment rather than an injection.

Track president Mike Anderson said the decision by Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen stemmed from Baffert’s “refusal to take responsibility for repeat violations” during a news conference at his backside barn after Medina Spirit’s failed test was revealed.

“We wanted to make a statement that this was a consequence of not doing the right thing,” Anderson said.

Attorneys Matt Benjamin and Christine Demana, who are representing Churchill Downs, also disputed Baffert’s contention that business has suffered by noting his latest crop of promising 3-year-old colts on this year’s Derby trail.

One of them, Arabian Knight, won last week’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn by 5+ lengths to give Baffert his record sixth win in the race. The horse is ineligible to earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points as the winner because of Baffert’s suspension.

A slide presented also showed that Baffert horses made 477 starts from May 10, 2021, through December 2022 and won marquee races such as the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Corniche, the Eclipse winner) along with Grade 1 wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Malibu Stakes (Taiba).

Friday’s 3 1/2-hour hearing followed four hours of testimony on Thursday. District Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings gave no indication when she would rule. But Brewster said he expects a decision “within several days.”

Baffert testified that he had had a good relationship with Churchill Downs, though he noted that he was paying for his seats at the track and having to “grovel” to get them. He also insisted that he tried to be a good ambassador for horse racing, especially after American Pharoah and Justify won the Triple Crown in 2015 and 2018, respectively.

“I think today was great because I finally got to tell my story in a nonbiased atmosphere,” he said. “I hope for the best, and hopefully we’ll be here.”