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Kentucky Derby 2020 Postponed
Mar 2020
25

2020 Kentucky Derby: The First Saturday In…September?

by Jen Perkins in News category

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing unprecedented changes on our daily lives, interrupting our normal schedules in the short term for the greater good of the future.

This impacts nearly all sporting events around the world, and while live horse racing is fortunate to continue, the pandemic has forced a change to the biggest event of American horse racing: the Kentucky Derby.

It recently was announced that the Kentucky Derby would be postponed from its traditional first Saturday in May to the first Saturday of September. The Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, the second and third races of the Triple Crown, are yet to be rescheduled but an announcement of fall dates likely will follow. 

A change in Triple Crown races gives us more time to prepare and study possible Derby horses, and there is still live horse racing available every day to watch and wager online from the safety of your own home.

Tradition of the Triple Crown

Horse racing is a sport that thrives on tradition; indeed, much of the appeal of the sport to fans is the pageantry of the horses, the rituals of saddling and post parades, the hats, and the mint juleps on Derby Day. We love our history of the sport, watching bloodlines of Triple Crown winners spawn new champions and celebrating the multi-generational roots of the sport in families across the country.

But racing also has a history of change, and it has adapted to unusual circumstances in the past. In fact, had it not been for change a century ago, we would have no Triple Crown today. 

The Triple Crown as we know it comprises three races: the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Kentucky on the first Saturday in May, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico two weeks later, and the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park three weeks after that. Each jewel in the Triple Crown has faced and overcome many changes and obstacles to get where it is today.

Kentucky Derby

The first Kentucky Derby was held in 1875. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of William Clark of Lewis and Clark explorer fame, was inspired to build a racetrack and host a major race after witnessing the Epsom Derby in England. The first horse to win, Aristedes, is honored with a statue on the Churchill Downs grounds near the saddling paddock. 

Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby began to flourish at the start of the 20th century, and the Derby soon became the most prestigious race for 3-year-olds. 

The Derby as we know it today is a 1 ¼ miles long, but for over 20 years, it was held at 1 ½ miles, the same distance as the modern Belmont Stakes. 

It was run for nearly 60 years before it became a tradition to hold it on the first Saturday in May each year. Prior to that, it was held in May but the date was flexible. 

However, 2020 will not be the first time that the Kentucky Derby has been run outside of the month of May. Horse racing ceased completely across the country in 1945 in an effort to conserve resources during World War II and the Kentucky Derby was in danger of being canceled altogether. When the war came to an end in May, horse racing resumed, and the Kentucky Derby was held on June 9. 

In 1901, The Kentucky Derby was even held earlier, on April 29. The race in general looked much different then with a small field of five entries. 

Preakness Stakes

As old as the Kentucky Derby is, it is still the little sister to the Preakness Stakes, which was held for the first time in 1873 at Pimlico in Baltimore, Maryland. Similar to the early days of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness was also held at a 1 ½ mile distance. The race is no stranger to change: it has been run at seven different distances, including its current distance of 1 3/16 miles.

There have been years in which the Preakness was not held at Pimlico, nor even held in the same state. Morris Park Racecourse in the Bronx, New York, played host to the race in 1890, and for a 15-year stretch from 1894 to 1908, the race was contested at Gravesend Race Track on Coney Island, New York. It was not run at all from 1891-1894, and in one year, it was a handicap race open to older horses, won by a 5-year-old horse. 

Belmont Stakes

As the oldest of the three Triple Crown races, it stands to reason that the Belmont Stakes is also subject to the most change over the years. 

The Belmont was first held in 1867. Fun fact: the first edition of the race was won by a filly, Ruthless, the first of three fillies who would become Belmont Stakes winners. 

While we discuss a fall Triple Crown series in 2020, that would not be the latest in the year that a Triple Crown race has been run. In 1895, the race was postponed until November 2. In 1911 and 1912, it was not held at all, as racing ceased in New York due to a state law prohibiting gambling. 

Like the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes has been contested at several distances. The distance has changed multiple times between five different distances but has been run at its current distance of 1 ½ miles since 1925. It was 1 3/8 miles when Sir Barton won in 1919. 

The Belmont Stakes has been held at four different locations. The original New York racing circuit from the 1860s looks much different than it does today; the first Belmont Stakes was held at Jerome Park in the Bronx, then at Morris Park, both of which have been shuttered for many years. The Belmont Stakes moved to Belmont Park when it first opened in 1905. It remained there until 1963, when it was moved to Aqueduct for four years while Belmont was renovated. 

Also, while we take for granted that horses racing in North America run clockwise, the Belmont Stakes was run counter-clockwise for over 50 years, finally changing course in 1921. 

Triple Crown History

The individual races that comprise the Triple Crown each pre-date the Triple Crown as we know it today. The accomplishment emerged as a significant achievement over time rather than conceptualized as a series at its beginning. 

The first horse to win the Triple Crown was not even recognized as a Triple Crown champion at the time. In 1919, Sir Barton happened to be the first horse to sweep all three races. But it was not until Gallant Fox attempted to do the same in 1930 that the term Triple Crown was used to describe the series. Sir Barton is included in the list of Triple Crown champions, but he is the only one that was not celebrated for the achievement at the time in the same manner that we do today. 

The schedule of the Triple Crown races in its current form began in 1931. Prior to that year, there were 11 years in which the Preakness was held before the Kentucky Derby, and 11 years in which the Belmont was even run before the Preakness Stakes. Let’s hope you weren’t attempting to be a Triple Crown winner in 1917 or 1922; in those years, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes were held on the same day.  

Putting Things in Perspective

If you think the change of the Derby this year is incomprehensible, imagine being a racing fan in the early 1900s. The Triple Crown races were held at different tracks, at different distances, in a different order, and in different directions. There were multiple years in which a Triple Crown winner would not have been possible due to overlapping dates or missed races, but it was a moot point as fans did not yet know what the Triple Crown was!

Let’s all make a mint julep and look forward to our Triple Crown sequence in the months to come. The extension gives us that much more time to find our Derby horses and more Derby preps will be added to the schedule. Just as fans who saw Sir Barton win a 1 3/8 mile counter-clockwise Belmont Stakes to sweep the Triple Crown for the first time, we are going to witness history in the making this year. 

In the meantime, live racing continues across the country, and online horse betting is legal and meets social distancing and shelter-in-place orders. Visit TVG.com, Twinspires.com or Xpressbet.com, sign up for free accounts, and get your live sports and betting fix on a different breed of athlete