Arts and Culture

For one weekend in May, the Kentucky Derby pushes Louisville into the sports limelight, creating a special buzz in the city.

That’s especially true in the neighborhoods around Churchill Downs.

“Normally, you can’t leave nowhere because you can’t find a parking spot when you get back, and there’s always people walking up and down here all dressed up nice, going to the track,” said Carl Bouchat, who’s lived near Churchill Downs for 20 years.

That changed last year when the Kentucky Derby was postponed for just the second time in history, and held without in-person spectators due to COVID-19. But many of the race’s traditional hallmarks will be back on Saturday when horses are called to post, including the presence of tens of thousands of fans in the stands and infield.

Officials have prepared the area around Churchill Downs ahead of the Derby for the expected influx of people. Fences and barricades line the sidewalks, along with “no parking” notices along most nearby streets.

Despite some signs of a return to normal, Bouchat said the energy around this year’s race feels different.

“You don’t really see nothing going on like you used to,” he said. “Everybody would be getting prepped and everything and getting their yards ready for parking and stuff. I ain’t been really hearing much about it. It just don’t seem like Derby.”

But that perceived lack of energy doesn’t mean some residents aren’t happy to see this year’s Derby plans. 

Jaque Simpson, who lives about 50 yards from Churchill Down’s back gate, said the race will bring much-needed excitement to the city after a year of pandemic-related stress.

“Living in South Louisville, it’s one of the only things that’s positive around here,” he said. “It does bring tourism to the city. And Churchill Downs does present itself pretty well to the out-of-towners. I think those things are essential to becoming a city that’s relevant.”

Simpson said one of the main benefits of the Derby is the “fun factor.” But it also creates more foot traffic for local businesses. Some neighborhood residents even find ways to capitalize on the influx of people, such as offering parking spaces on their property.

That sort of enterprise could be more difficult this year due to capacity limits, Simpson said.

“Anything that puts money in people’s hands that need it is a good thing,” he said. “But what I do notice is with the capacity being down, I doubt that it’ll be a lot of money going around like it usually is. I think that’s one of the effects COVID will have this year.”

Churchill Downs is limiting attendance to about 50% this year. But even with that cap, around 45,000 spectators could be in the stands and infield.

Patricia True, who’s lived near Churchill Downs for five years, has treated COVID-19 patients through her work as a nurse. Though she agrees with the decision to allow spectators at the Derby, she said attendees should take precautions to prevent the virus from spreading.

“We won’t know for two weeks if it causes a bump,” she said. “But that’s part of the process. You have to take baby steps, find out what happens and readjust.”

True said Louisville’s economy has sacrificed a lot over the past year in the absence of major events like the Kentucky Derby. To her, it’s a much smaller sacrifice to wear a mask and get vaccinated, if it means getting back to normal.

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.