Last year more than a hundred thousand people were in attendance at Churchill Downs to watch the Kentucky Oaks. This year, the nine fillies ran the one-and-one-eighth mile race at a mostly empty track. Churchill Downs decided not to allow spectators this year, amid a rise in coronavirus cases in Louisville and across the state.
Don Fritz is working security in the paddock at Churchill Downs, making sure people get where they need to go, and no one goes where they’re not supposed to. Usually there are tens of thousands of people to deal with on Oaks Day. But this year, it’s just a handful of owners, and their family and friends.
“It’s a lot of fun but it is a little strange,” Fritz said. He misses the crowds. But he feels pretty safe with the health and safety protocols for employees and few guests.
“They all get screened when they come in with the temperature,” he said. “They’ve got hand sanitizer all over the place.”
All guests and employees also have to wear masks. Up on the second floor, the few pari-mutuel tellers are all wearing pink masks and shirts – the traditional color of the Oaks. Denise Richards has been taking bets here for 41 years, and typically around this time of day she has a long line of gamblers. Now she’s looking out on an empty lobby.
“It’s less stressful but it just makes the day drag out so long, because you’re used to being busy and now you’re just kinda standing around and waiting for the time to pass,” she said.
At the same time, Richards said she’s glad Churchill Downs decided not to have fans.
“I feel safe about the virus,” she said. “I’m a little concerned about the protesters tonight and tomorrow night.”
Protesters calling for racial justice say they have non-violent demonstrations planned outside of Churchill Downs on Derby Day. They say it’s inappropriate for the city to hold the event while calls to arrest and charge the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor have so far gone unanswered.
Amid protests and the coronavirus, the Oaks still drew some out-of-towners. Erin Gray drove in from Chicago. She got a ticket through a connection to an owner, and is watching from the nearly-empty section above the finish line. Gray is using her mother’s strategy to make her wagers.
“My mom says if you watch, the numbers always add up,” she said. So she bet the three, five and eight horses, because three plus five equals eight.
Down on the track, trainers are washing down Travel Column — a gorgeous dappled gray filly. She’s just won race number 5, with some help from jockey Florent Geroux. Geroux is happy to have won. But it’s he say it’s strange without fans.
“Oh it’s not the same,” he said. “It’s like playing football in the empty stadium. That’s what makes it great is like the fans cheering us up. Us and the horses, no?”
Back in the paddock, Don Fritz agrees. He loves watching the race in a crowd.
“You can hear ’em coming, and you can just feel the ground is shaking,” he said. “The hair on the back of your neck stands up because your horse is in the lead. You got the hundreds of thousands of people behind you just roaring.”
This year just doesn’t compare.
“When you’re out there listening to them race, you hear the horses and you hear the whips, but it’s just nothing without the crowd.”
But there’s still the race. Later that day, Geroux got to add another win to his list: he was on top of Shedaresthedevil, who won the 2020 Kentucky Oaks.
Geroux had recently recovered from COVID-19. The jockey tested positive in July.
“I didn’t have any symptoms, thank god. But some others it’s not the same case. Many people are dying from this virus. It’s very contagious. Even me, I tried to be as careful as I could and I still tested positive. It just shows you how extremely contagious this is,” he said in a press conference after winning the Oaks.
Geroux said it was a “very, very long summer,” spent in quarantine, which meant not racing as much as he planned to. According to Geroux, tracks in New York and California wouldn’t let him race there, even if he presented a negative coronavirus test. So he stayed in Kentucky and trained.
“2020 has been rough for everyone in the world,” he said. “Just being here to have a Derby, even if it’s September with no spectators, it’s amazing.”