Let’s Not Make the Kentucky Derby a "First Week of September" Tradition Ever Again

Kentucky Derby a First Week of September Tradition

Checking the numbers provides strong evidence of America voting upon the first Kentucky Derby outside of the first week in May since 1945.  Despite an audience sequestered at home, the Nielsen ratings averaged only 4.8.  The smallest number since 2000 when the Derby averaged 9.1.  Overall, the initial ratings for this year’s Derby represent a 49% drop from the 16.3 million viewers and 9.4 ratings in 2019.

But like everything else that has occurred in sports within the U.S this year, the number will accompany a giant asterisk. The BIG numbers and the digits that count to the people at host track Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI) reflect the WAGERING numbers connected to the betting figures. They resulted in a decrease of a huge 52% from the prior year’s Kentucky Derby with a 49% decrease on the overall 14-race card.

It was an emptiness that was felt throughout the NBC telecast from the famous paddock to the twin spires clubhouse straight into all our living rooms. No matter what the announcers gallantly pushed, it just wasn’t my ol’ Kentucky home this year…

Blame It on COVID-19

No doubt all the blame for the emptiness felt at the Kentucky Derby belonged to the shadow cast by the Coronavirus. What makes the Run for the Roses the American spectacle it has become since 1875 is the boisterous crowd of over 160,000 people that fill Churchill Downs every year. Without them, it’s a horse race but not an event.

NBC did a terrific job filling the entertainment gap for a universal audience stuck in their living rooms due to the pandemic. It was especially interesting watching the feature on Diane Crump, fifty years ago the first female to ride in a Kentucky Derby. Today, according to The Jockey Guild, the union that represents more than 95 percent of all North American jockeys, of its 994 current members, 81 are women or just over 8 percent.

It was also noteworthy to see how unpredictable (and often heartbreaking) horse racing can be. Likely third choice in the wagering, Thousand Words reared up in the paddock, necessitating he be scratched for precautionary purpose. He was later ruled Ok by the veterinarians, but the assistant trainer handling a Thousand Words broke his arm during the accident. Incredibly, the moment was captured live on camera by NBC.

Law and Disorder

Perhaps the most awkward feature was time focusing on protests involving Derby’s favorite “Tiz The Law”. In fairness, ample opportunity was given to the horse’s accomplishments winning the Belmont Stakes and other stake races in the possibility of becoming another Triple Crown candidate.  How Tiz The Law would be the shortest price favorite in almost thirty years heading into the race.  His name had nothing to do whatsoever to the coincidental events surrounding the event. Incidentally, Tiz The Law ran a game Derby however finished second to wire winner Authentic.

Unfortunately, his positive accomplishments were often overshadowed by racial tensions in the host city Louisville throughout the week. His name was unfairly shared on posters by many protestors intent to fight for a cause sweeping the U.S.

“No justice, no Derby,” demonstrators chanted during the week and on Derby day as they draped the racetrack’s gilded entrance sign with a purple banner depicting Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old black woman killed by police in her Louisville apartment in March. The gathering was highly strategic, aimed at a marquee event that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Many black residents consider it an enduring symbol of Louisville’s inequalities and segregation.

During the race day afternoon, a small scuffle ensued between groups of protesters. Tensions reportedly calmed down after an armed group of self-described “patriots” left downtown Louisville and police arrived in riot gear at a park near the downtown courthouse, according to an ABC News producer at the site.

Earlier in the year when it appeared that a delayed Kentucky Derby would still host nearly 23,000 guests at Churchill Downs, as the city reeled from Taylor’s death and calls continued for charges against the officers involved, activists condemned the race and demanded its cancellation.  There was a serious threat that the epic race would not be run for the first time since 1875.

What Could Not Be Replaced

Being at the Kentucky Derby is like no other event or festival. I have attended twice along with memorable trips to the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore and the Belmont Stakes in New York.

Seeing thousands of women decked out in original giant hats and party dresses are special. And to be honest, gazing upon thousands of intoxicated young women in the Churchill infield wearing next to nothing by race time can also be quite unforgettable as well.

Celebrities are often photographed and interviewed by network television hosts for their Derby selections. Can’t say that is a rule for either the Preakness or the Belmont. Thematic parties are scheduled for the first Saturday in MAY, coast to coast celebrating Spring, whether you are a horse race lover or not.

The saddest ritual missing last Saturday was listening to the traditional call to post. The ten-minute warning signal alerting the world the annual Run for the Roses will occur in just ten minutes.  A congregation of 160,000+ at Churchill Downs scream in unison as we at home shed tears of excitement.  This year it sounded more like taps were being carried out by the red-jacketed bugler.

The Good and Bad News

For advertisers, the timing of the Coronavirus tinged Derby was a blessed event. The segregated television audience was totally unique due to virtually no other serious national sports competition and a country that was locked at home due to a national pandemic.  NBC will get a welcome boost in Nielsen numbers next year when we pray the annual Run for the Roses returns to its beloved first week of May time slot.

The bad news was also a unique occurrence in our online wagering age.  Although we’ve grown accustomed to wagering on horse racing offsite for several years, the Kentucky Derby and it’s mammoth “onsite” attendance are dependent on people directly wagering at Churchill Downs on race day. Seeing betting shrink almost in half is bad for business.  A trend that will continue next on October 3rd at Pimlico Race Course for the final jewel of the Triple Crown at the Preakness.

FYI…. the Kentucky Derby was postponed from the first Saturday in May only one other time in U.S. history.  It happened in 1945 when all horse racing was canceled.  They had a much better excuse that year. World War II.

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Larry Gibbs

Expert on Sports Betting Industry

Larry Gibbs is both a seasoned journalist and a respected online gaming industry consultant. His wry commentary & sharp analysis have appeared in numerous top gaming and sports wagering publications. He has also served as Vice President of US Gaming Services, a marketing research organization with 15 years of experience in US online wagering. He has spoken at noted gaming industry conferences including G2E, GiGSE, and NCLGS.

Email: larry.gibbs@wsn.com