It’s not the Kentucky Derby Churchill Downs would have imagined. It’s on Labor Day weekend instead of the first Saturday in May. It will take place without fans in the stands. It’ll be the second race of the Triple Crown instead of the first, as the Belmont has already been run. And whereas, for some, it used to mark the approach of summer, this time around it very well may stand for a very different symbol.
While it hasn’t been recently mentioned as much as Kenosha or Portland, Louisville still remains an epicenter of the racial injustice in this country and a major target of Black Lives Matter and protesters all over the country. It was Louisville where Breonna Taylor was shot by police on a no-knock warrant. It is Louisville where those officers still have not been arrested or charged. And it is Breonna Taylor’s name that is still on the minds and lips of most of those protesting racial injustice.
Many Louisville residents are not going to let the city forget about that on what is normally the city’s one day as the center of the sporting world. There are a handful of protests planned for Saturday and before, even if there won’t be fans under the Twin Spires.
There were many calls for the track to cancel the race altogether. As Timothy Findley, senior pastor at the Kingdom Fellowship Christian Life Center, pointed out, there’s something definitely off about an event that celebrates the city of Louisville and the state of Kentucky when the atrocities and imbalance that so many of its residents go through every day are now in such clear relief. ”We just don’t feel like right now is a time to have this celebratory festival when so many people are hurting and wanting justice,” Findley explained. There’s really nothing to celebrate this year, even a muted Kentucky Derby.
Unsurprisingly, the track did not go along with the calls to cancel the race. Findley has penned an open letter to residents and businesses to boycott the Derby, though it was penned before Churchill backtracked on having limited fans attending, Now the stands will be empty. ”This weekend we’re going to have every major news station, and while there won’t be any fans in the stands, we still have an opportunity to amplify our message,” the pastor said.
Findley’s organization, No Justice No Peace Louisville, Black Lives Matter Louisville, and other groups have protests planned for the whole week, and Saturday especially. Until Freedom, a group that has organized protests in the past on Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s lawn, has one scheduled for South Central Park at 4:30 on Saturday, less than a mile from the track and just over three hours from post time for the race (it’ll take place later than usual for TV purposes at 7:01 EST). The group has already had one protest near the track, that also started in South Central Park, that resulted in 64 arrests last Tuesday.
Those involved with the race, such as trainer Barclay Tagg who will saddle the favorite Tiz The Law, reacted just about how you would think a shit-kicking horseman would react.
“”I don’t know what these guys are going to do, these rioters, Who knows? All I know is you’re not allowed to shoot them and they’re allowed to shoot you. That’s what it looks like to me.”
If you thought sports like baseball or hockey were unprepared and unequipped to deal with these things, wait until you see horse racing have to confront it on what is usually its biggest day.
The lack of fans has the potential to dull, just a little, the impact of these protests. The visual of protestors merely asking for racial equality juxtaposed with those adorned in Kentucky Derby hats sipping on juleps or meat-headed fratboys headed for the infield would have made for a striking illustration. It also would have been a likelier flashpoint between protestors and police, because it is unlikely that protesters would be allowed anywhere near attendees or the track. There would have been no way NBC could ignore what would have ensued.
Which means the coverage of what transpires outside the gates this time is on NBC, and you can bet for sure they won’t mention them at all, and if they do it’ll merely be in passing. Which is hardly fair, but also the world we live in.
That doesn’t mean Churchill isn’t taking extra measures to secure their race. Police have been stationed outside the gates already and will only be more present as the race approaches and on Saturday. There will be a hard perimeter around the track on Saturday, which is not something they’ve done before, even when there are fans. This leads to the questions of what happens when protesters approach, because they’re going to. One of their goals has been to create a noise that NBC cameras and mics can’t ignore, so they’re going to be outside the track. How close they can get, we’ll just have to see.
Even with no fans, this Kentucky Derby has every chance of being a symbol of where the country is now, just not how its organizers and fans usually intend. Horse racing and the Derby have a long history of racism, perhaps highlighted by the fact that the original lyrics to “My Old Kentucky Home,” contained the line “the darkies are gay.” While those inside the track would clearly prefer and even demand the race goes off as normal as possible, it’s clear that it likely won’t — and shouldn’t.