By Nicholas Godfrey
USA: With US racing braced for the possible postponement of the Kentucky Derby owing to coronavirus fears, legendary trainer Bob Baffert has called for the race to be run in the month of May – if not on the traditional first Saturday, then soon after.
Churchill Downs issued a ‘holding’ statement on Saturday, when all major horse racing in North America took place behind closed doors with no paying customers in attendance as a precaution against the further spread of COVID-19.
Five-time Kentucky Derby winner Baffert is in pole position again with several leading fancies for America’s greatest race led by Authentic, Nadal and Charlatan; the last-named pair boosted their claims on Saturday with victories within half an hour of each other at Oaklawn Park and Santa Anita respectively.
“That was quite a 20-30 minutes,” said Baffert, speaking to the Blood-Horse. “But it’s hard to get excited if the Kentucky Derby is not run in May.
“It won’t be as majestic and won’t be the same event,” he went on. “They have to run it in May for the good of the sport. There’s enough time to figure out ways to run it safely and not impact the wagering.”
Nadal recorded a gutsy front-running victory in the $1 million Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn – a race won by subsequent Triple Crown hero American Pharoah in 2015 – while the much touted Charlatan overwhelmed his rivals with a 10¼-length triumph at Baffert’s home track, Santa Anita. Authentic is vying for favouritism after an impressive victory last weekend in the G2 San Felipe.
“Those three, they’re just outstanding horses,” Baffert said in other reports. “Now we need the Kentucky Derby to be run, or maybe just delayed a couple weeks. That’s the obstacle right now.”
At present, the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for its traditional date of the first Saturday in May, which falls on May 2 this year.
“Churchill is saying they’re not going to run the Derby without the people there, so I’m hearing maybe June or in September,” added Baffert. “Whenever they cancel the Masters, that’s like the Derby…I’ve never seen anything like this, it’s kinda scary. Hopefully they can get everything under control.”
After consultation with local public health officials, Churchill Downs is delaying the reopening of stable areas for two weeks until March 31. A further statement is promised later this week with regard to the Spring Meet and the Kentucky Derby.
In the meantime, Saturday’s statement talked about the importance of the event to the wider community. “We recognize that the impact of this iconic event extends well beyond the historic racetrack of Churchill Downs,” it read.
“The Kentucky Derby is a cherished and important time for the city of Louisville and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. We are mindfully aware of our fans, who travel from great distances to join us, as well as our valued employees, whose most intense preparations to host a world-class event begin now.
“For these reasons, we have been working carefully and diligently with relevant health experts and authorities to ensure we make the most responsible decision regarding the timing of the 146th Kentucky Derby this year.
“We thank you for your patience and are committed to providing regular communication and transparency as we move forward. This is not a decision we take lightly and we expect to have an update about the Kentucky Derby and additional information on our upcoming Spring Meet in the coming week.
“Our hearts are with those near and far who have been affected.”