Normal Kentucky Derby: Capacity crowd, big hats, mint juleps

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Kentucky Derby is the next major sporting event to move a step closer to normalcy after two years of upheaval adjusting to COVID-19 restrictions.

After fluctuating dates and crowds, Churchill Downs will welcome everybody without restrictions on Saturday, raising hopes of getting back to 150,000 or more beneath the Twin Spires.

If attendance and participation around Louisville and other major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, Final Four and Major League Baseball games are any indication, the atmosphere for the first jewel in horse racing’s Triple Crown should have a pre-pandemic feel, though masks are optional.

“I grew up here, so I’ve been expecting big things out of this year since it opened up to full capacity,” Louisville native Brett Rebalsky said during Saturday night’s opening at the historic track. “Really, just seeing the city come alive again.”

The 2020 running was delayed until Labor Day weekend, then held without spectators. It returned returned to its familiar spring slot eight months later in 2021, but with limited capacity.

At the very least this year should feature the spectrum of women in big hats and fascinators and men in seersucker suits, sipping bourbon and mint juleps as cigar smoke wafts through the air.

And possibly, a bigger bottom line for a city whose identity still comes from the marquee sporting event.

The initial projected local economic impact from Friday’s Kentucky Oaks for fillies and Saturday’s Derby was $324 million. But with COVID-19 restrictions lifted for many activities and venues, local officials are optimistic of reaching or exceeding the $400 million Derby season normally generates.

It seems attainable considering last weekend’s Thunder Over Louisville air and fireworks show packed the Ohio River waterfront with people on blankets and in lawn chairs. Opening night at Churchill Downs drew 22,207, while companion events such as the Derby marathon and Pegasus Parade attracted crowds resembling pre-pandemic levels.

Event organizers are pulling out all the stops.

The Derby afterparty features an outdoor downtown concert headlined by Grammy-winning superstar Janet Jackson with popular R&B group New Edition.

Put it all together and hotels are filling up again. Occupancy citywide is estimated at 85%, 2% higher than in 2019. The downtown estimate of 94% is inching closer to the pre-pandemic 97% rate.

But even with that, some pandemic hangover remains with supply chain and staffing challenges for area attractions and restaurants.

“We’re hoping that people traveling to Louisville for the Derby will take that into account and bring their patience with them,” Louisville Tourism marketing spokeswoman Stacey Yates said.

Churchill Downs and its partners anticipate no such staffing issues for spectators after waiting three years to handle a packed house. The historic track will continue selling all-inclusive food and drink packages in reserved seating areas to reduce in-line wait times.

With 30 workers staffing five kiosks and walking the grounds selling cigars, Jonathan Blue predicts “a record year” as the official vendor after a limited approach last spring. Overall, cigar sales are up with alcohol sales steady for the Liquor Barn co-owner, whose statewide chain provided home deliveries for Derby parties during the pandemic.

Distiller and race sponsor Woodford Reserve also anticipates bigger opportunities after two years of marketing the at-home Derby experience. That aspect will continue. But judging from its signage and booths around Churchill Downs, the Versailles, Kentucky-based maker of top-shelf bourbon is excited about getting closer to how things were.

“After these last two years of the lockdown and scaling down, certainly here in Kentucky, everybody’s just ready to bust out and party,” Woodford Reserve spokesman Chris Poynter said.

“The Derby is such an ingrained part of the DNA of Kentucky that it’s really part of the way of life here,” Poynter said. “You have Derby, you have horses and you have bourbon. That’s the trifecta for Kentuckians.”

And even for those outside the Bluegrass State.

The opening-night energy certainly sold Michele Caywood and her husband, Eric, on returning for the Oaks and Derby. Just weaving through fans around the paddock and soaking in the atmosphere of roses and tulips made them feel they had checked off at least part of their bucket-list item.

“As a little girl we used to watch it on television of course, and it’s just an amazing race,” said Caywood, from Jefferson City, Missouri. “It’s just cool to be able to see these horses in person, the talent these jockeys have and when they you see them running on the track, it’s amazing.”

And a welcomed sight for Derby officials and fans alike.

Watch the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 7 on NBC, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and Peacock from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. ET.

Flightline, Pletcher, Godolphin lead way at Eclipse Awards

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Pat McDonogh/USA TODAY NETWORK
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PALM BEACH, Fla. — Flightline ran away in all six of his races, and ran away with top honors at the Eclipse Awards on Thursday night.

And trainer Todd Pletcher, for the first time in nearly a decade, received the sport’s top prize as well.

Flightline – the now-retired winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap an unbeaten six-race career – won Horse of the Year as well as the Eclipse as top Older Dirt Male. It was no surprise that Flightline took home both awards, and he’s now standing stud.

“We’ll hope that his future is as bright as his past,” co-owner Kosta Hronis said.

Godolphin was also a double winner, sweeping the Eclipses as top owner and top breeder for the second consecutive year. It was also the third consecutive top-owner Eclipse for Godolphin.

“This is truly a golden era for Godolphin racing,” said Michael Banahan, the stable’s director of bloodstock. “And these awards and accolades recognize how special it is.”

It was Pletcher’s eighth Eclipse, extending his record for the most by any trainer, and his first since 2014. It was one of the few close races in the voting; Pletcher got 108 first-place votes, while four-time Eclipse winner Chad Brown got 95 and finished second.

“This really is not an individual award. This is a team award,” Pletcher said. “This is an award about the owners, and most importantly, the horses.”

Irad Ortiz Jr. won the Eclipse as top jockey for the fourth time in the last five years; he tied Pat Day and Javier Castellano for third-most in history, behind only seven-time winner Jerry Bailey and five-time winner Laffit Pincay Jr.

Ortiz led all jockeys with more than $37 million in purses in 2022.

“Wow,” Ortiz said. “It’s been an amazing year for me.”

Forte won the Eclipse as 2-year-old male, and will enter this year’s Triple Crown season as one of the early favorites.

“We’re all in this game for a horse like Forte,” said Mike Repole, the horse’s co-owner along with Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola and Teresa Viola. “We’re all in this game to one day maybe own a 2-year-old that has a chance. It’s great to have the Kentucky Derby favorite. … Forte’s an incredible horse.”

Epicenter won the 3-year-old male Eclipse, after running second at both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, then winning the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga over the summer.

Wonder Wheel was the winner as 2-year-old filly, while Nest won the Eclipse in the 3-year-old filly division. Malathaat was the Eclipse winner for older dirt female, Goodnight Olive for female sprinter and Regal Glory for female turf horse.

Elite Power was picked as the top male sprinter, Modern Games won the Eclipse for male turf horse, and Hewick was the Eclipse winner in the steeplechase division.

Jose Antonio Gomez won as top apprentice jockey.

The Eclipse Awards are voted on by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers And Broadcasters.

Trainer Bob Baffert’s ban from racing in New York is over

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Courier Journal/USA TODAY Sports
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Bob Baffert can once again enter horses at New York’s major tracks.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s one-year ban by the New York Racing Association ended Wednesday, allowing him to enter horses as soon as Thursday.

“I was disappointed they even did it, but it’s water under the bridge,” Baffert told The Associated Press by phone.

He was suspended last June for repeated medication violations, although none of them occurred in New York. He was barred from Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. A panel credited Baffert for time served for an initial suspension, which allowed him to return this week.

Aqueduct is currently holding its 44-day winter meet that runs through March 26. Baffert doesn’t typically run horses this time of year in New York; he targets the biggest stakes races at Belmont in the spring and Saratoga in the summer.

Baffert remains under a two-year ban by Churchill Downs Inc., which sidelined him after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a substance that is not allowed on race day. The penalty expires shortly after the Kentucky Derby in May. However, Baffert is fighting the suspension in federal court.

The Southern California-based trainer has a big weekend coming up around the country, although not in New York.

He has horses running at three tracks on Saturday.

Defunded is entered in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in Florida, where Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes will be on hand.

Arabian Knight goes into the $750,000 Southwest Stakes as the early favorite at Oaklawn in Arkansas. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby prep race a record-tying five times and will travel to Hot Springs to watch the 3-year-old colt.

“It’s going to be a good test for him. The only way to find out is to run him long,” he said. “It’s going to take a superior horse to do that and I’m hoping that he is.”

The Southwest offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top five finishers. Arabian Knight won’t receive any points regardless of his placing because of Baffert’s Derby ban.

Hopper will run in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

On Sunday at the same track, Baffert has entered four of the five horses set to run in the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes for 3-year-olds.