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Friday, January 15, 2021

Through wars and world turmoil, Kentucky Derby runs on

The Great Depression didn’t stop the Kentucky Derby. Neiither did World War I or World War II. The race has been run without interruption since it began in 1875.

But for the first time in 75 years, the Derby will miss the month of May.

Churchill Downs postponed the opening leg of the Triple Crown from May 2 to Sept. 5 due to concern over the coronavirus pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the world’s sports calendar.

“At no point did we ever consider canceling the Kentucky Derby,” said Bill Carstanjen, CEO of Churchill Downs Inc.

In 1945, the track in Louisville, Kentucky, almost didn’t have a choice. That year the race for 3-year-old colts was staged more than a month past its traditional date on the spring calendar.

That January, horse racing was banned nationwide. Jimmy Byrnes, director of the Office of War Mobilization in Washington, viewed it as a waste of valuable resources. Men who could be serving in the war instead were working in track operations, gambling on racing was hugely popular, and gas and tire rubber was being consumed heavily in transporting horses to tracks.

In late January, U.S. troops in Europe had just concluded the Battle of the Bulge, the bloodiest fought by them in the war. Still to come in the Pacific was Iwo Jima, an equally fierce and bloody battle in which the Allies defeated Japanese forces at the end of March. An Allied victory loomed, but was not yet assured.

Not until Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, was the ban on racing lifted. That led to the Derby being run on June 9.

The recent end of the war still kept many people from traveling long distances to Louisville. However, about 75,000 people attended and wagered what at the time was a Derby day record of $2,380,796, including a record $776,408 on the Derby itself. Ridden by future Hall of Famer Eddie Arcaro, Hoop Jr. won by six lengths against 15 rivals over a muddy track.

The Derby was in peril another time, too.

Byrnes had come close to banning the sport in 1943 but racing powers prevailed in keeping it going.

That year, there were travel restrictions imposed by World War II and no out-of-town tickets were sold. Still, the Derby endured, with Count Fleet winning in front of 65,000. He went on to win the Triple Crown that year, sweeping the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

The only other Derby not run in May came in 1901, when it occurred on April 29. His Eminence led all the way in defeating four rivals.

This year’s postponement will require changes to the points system used to decide the 20-horse field for the Derby. More qualifying races at tracks around the country will be added this summer. Trainers will need to adjust training and racing schedules for their hopefuls.

“I’m going to have to back off some of them that are ready to go right now,” said four-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert, who has a handful of top prospects. “The thing is to keep them healthy.”

While the coronavirus brings daily upheaval, the Derby and its traditions of sipping mint juleps, wearing fancy hats and singing “My Old Kentucky Home” will go on, albeit on Labor Day weekend.

“We’re going to have a Kentucky Derby in September and that’s fine,” said trainer Mark Casse, whose Derby contender is Enforceable. “It would’ve been terrible if we didn’t have a Kentucky Derby at all.”

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AP Sports Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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