What Are the Odds That 23,000 People Attending a Horse Race Is a Bad Idea?

Twenty-three thousand people will be in attendance for the Kentucky Derby. What could go wrong?
Twenty-three thousand people will be in attendance for the Kentucky Derby. What could go wrong?
Photo: Getty

Churchill Downs announced today that 23,000 people will be able to attend September’s Kentucky Derby in accordance with the track’s health and safety plan.


That’s around 14 percent of maximum capacity. But it’s still thousands of people in a space together sharing restrooms, dining spaces, parking lots and other facilities.

General admission and infield tickets have been eliminated.

So what are the odds that Churchill Downs become a legitimate vector of disease? I’m not going to pretend to have an epidemiological answer. 23,000 fans is certainly safer than 170,000. And banning general admission and infield seating sounds better than having potentially infectious people in those seats. But don’t pretend that going to the 146th Run for the Roses with thousands of strangers is the same risk as eating outdoors, keeping your distance at a beach, or playing 18 holes with your friends. For 23,000 spectators, how many concession workers, parking attendants, and track employees have to risk their health and well-being for a day’s work?

The biggest gamble to take at this year’s Kentucky Derby is physically going to the event. Do we think that a few thousand attendees will not result in any infections? Infections, of course, that are preventable.

Indy 500 racetrack owner Roger Penske faced a similar dilemma a few weeks ago. Should he let a reduced number of fans into the outdoor stands, and make a little more money? Or play it safe.

After originally planning to house a few thousand spectators, Penske opted to ban fans from this month’s race.


“We need to be safe and smart about this,” Penske said. “Obviously we want full attendance, but we don’t want to jeopardize the health and safety of our fans and the community. We also don’t want to jeopardize the ability to hold a successful race.”

For Penske, a year without fans will hurt financially, in the short term, but benefit the track in the long run.


“We didn’t buy the Speedway for one year, we bought it for generations to come, and it’s important to our reputation to do the right thing.”

At the time Penske decided to exclude fans from the Indy 500, the state of Indiana was seeing a rise in COVID cases.


Kentucky’s COVID numbers, similarly, remain high. State cases peaked in late July and have since leveled off.

The leaders of Churchill Downs, however, insist on allowing fans at the track.

 Their statement comes at a time when nearly everyone in the sports world, except Jerry Jones, agrees that hosting spectators during a pandemic is a bad idea.


Sports leagues understand that virtual fans are better than actual people, for now.

The NBA, WNBA and NHL continue to show no signs of spread in their bubbles. The NWSL and MLS got off to rough starts but managed to finish their enclosed tournaments. College sports may have no fans or games this year and the traveling MLB circus has infected three teams. But, at least, zero fans.


Other sporting events like the Masters, the U.S. Opens, both golf and tennis, announced they will be closed to spectators, too. The PGA held a successful PGA Championship without spectators last week.

This year, thousands will congregate in Louisville. But for everyone else outside the grounds, this will be the year to bet on our phones, not our lives.