In a Derby week unlike any other, listening for the hoofbeats of hope

Churchill Downs before sunrise on Opening Day, 2019. (Eric Crawford photo)

Derby week is here. The Kentucky Derby is not. In the parlance of the sport, days on which a track holds no horse racing traditionally are called “dark days.” At Churchill Downs, and all over the Derby city, these are dark days indeed. A ban on mass gatherings because of the novel coronavirus that has killed 205 Kentuckians in the past 43 days has resulted in the postponement of Kentucky’s grandest gathering.

For some time, on Monday of Derby week, I have endeavored to write down the scene as we entered the home stretch of our state’s hallowed spectacle.

The scene today is empty. A wet, dreary Sunday morning at Churchill Downs saw clouds obscuring the sunrise over the spires. There were no crowds on the backside. No hoofbeats in the morning chill. No horses steaming from their stable baths. The gates were locked. Stop along Longfield Avenue. Look through the chain link fence. Morning puddles reflect the nothingness. A scene usually teeming with life – equine, human, cats, dogs, roosters, chickens, goats – is unnaturally silent.

Day is breaking, but there is no Dawn at the Downs. No mint juleps. No post-positions. No “place your bets.”

On this first Saturday in May, there will be no grand walk over from the backside stables to the grandstand mayhem. There will be no paddock crowds. No “riders up.”

No post parade. No “And they’re off,” or “down the stretch they come.”

No win. No place. No show.

In Kentucky this May, history is holding all tickets. But it is all around us, in other ways.

Instead of splendor in the grandstands, we are engaged in a grand struggle.

The heroes are not on horseback, but in hospitals. The race is not to the swift, but to the steadfast.

In this Derby week that is unlike any other, our best bet is each other. Our fashion statement is perseverance.

The last time the first Saturday in May came and went without a Kentucky Derby, the year was 1945. On Monday of that Derby week, word came that German chancellor Adolf Hitler had killed himself. U.S. officials were pondering a date for V.E. Day – Victory in Europe. And Matt Winn – who had steadfastly refused to cancel the Derby until explicitly ordered to do so by the Department of Defense in ’45, was springing into action.

He had told reporters, in previous war years, that he would run the Derby even if only two horses and two fans showed up. With travel restrictions in place, he opened the race to local fans only, and urged those with boxes who lived out of town to donate their tickets to servicemen.

Now, with victory in sight, he quickly organized a June running of the Derby – a celebration of horses and hopes realized.

None of us knows what awaits in September, when the Derby has been rescheduled. Certainly, to think there will be a Kentucky Derby that looks like the Derbies we have known, would seem a longshot.

As Derby week begins in 2020, the heavy favorite is uncertainty. Close on its heels – but not too close – is social distance. But coming from far off the pace, almost lost in the back of the pack, is a reliable closer called hope.

Among the many other contenders this Derby week — frustration, fear, anger, sickness, and division – let us lock our listening on the hoofbeats of hope.

Our garland of roses can wait, but it will not wilt.

We will reach the finish line of these dark days. We will raise our glasses, not to our rite of spring, but to our fortitude this fall, if hope can overcome its foes.

And, on a day hopefully not too far distant, we will weep no more.