At the first Kentucky Derby the public could attend since the pandemic began, one sentiment kept coming up: gratitude.

Michelle Chapman attended this year’s Derby with her friends. She said she went to Derby every few years or so before the pandemic.

“This year, the difference is that, I think there’s more of a vibe of just happiness and appreciation and gratitude for being here and being all together,” she said. Before it was more just party, horses, betting. Now I think people are just happy to be in community.”

Her friend Patrick Pfeiffer declared the COVID pandemic over — his wife Betsy disagreed — but he said it’s amazing to go from total shutdown to being among tens of thousands of people at the track.

Jess Clark |

Patrick Pfeiffer, Betsy Pfeiffer, Michelle Chapman and Mark Chapman

Parimutuel teller Lakisha Cathey works the Derby and the Breeder’s Cup when it’s in Louisville, and she said this year is way less busy than she’s used to. But it’s still fun; she loves the excitement and different costumes.

“A man had on a horse suit… a balloon suit… and a rose petal suit,” she said.

As for the COVID-19 precautions, she didn’t sugar coat it. People are not following the rules. But she didn’t begrudge them that.

“People are not. But we’re over it, everyone wants to just get out and have fun… we’re just taking it for what it is.”

Jess Clark |

Parimutuel teller Lakisha Cathey

Margaret Dauria, a Notre Dame student sitting in the infield, said she had COVID a month ago. She’s still dealing with shortness of breath. But that experience made her feel more comfortable coming to the Derby.

“I am also fully vaccinated, so I have double antibodies,” she said. “I’m feeling pretty invincible.”

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Margaret Dauria

Churchill Downs sold up to 60% capacity in reserved seating and about 30% in the infield. The official requirement is that attendees be masked unless they’re actively eating or drinking — state COVID orders still requires outdoor masking at events attended by more than 1,000 people — but compliance has been spotty at best at this week’s races.

Friday’s Kentucky Oaks was attended by more than 41,000 people.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.