The 2020 Kentucky Derby is our shattered normal: Waiting on history

Triple Crown winner American Pharoah watches footage of himself winning the Kentucky Derby in 2015
Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, in retirement, takes a break from stud duties to watch himself win the 2015 Kentucky Derby. Pic credit: NBC

The only thing worse than a rowdy, beer-stinking, mud-freezing Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May is one without any of these things at all. That is what we experienced in America in 2020. The weather was spectacular all across Kentucky, and the paddock was empty, the trackside bars shut.

It is these moments of the pandemic which slam us against a wall as a culture. No matter how deeply a personal loss may cut, we don’t experience them as a nation — not anymore. But when our social markers are taken away, the turn of spring replaced with a silent grandstand, we are compelled to acknowledge our shattered normal. One of the great markers of time that usually holds a mirror to our lives has vanished, and we don’t know where to look.

The Governor’s different day

The Derby must run. It has run unbroken since 1875. Before there was a Triple Crown, there was a Kentucky Derby; before there was a State of Colorado, there was a Kentucky Derby. It must run. It will run as the Midwestern leaves are leaving us, tinging to orange and yellow rather than just joining the world in barely-broken greens, but it will run.

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The target date is now Saturday, September 5. That is because on Saturday, May 2, assuming only jockeys and the gate crew were on the track, a grand total of five horses could have raced, since only ten people were allowed in one place at one time. And so Kentucky governor Andy Beshear, instead of handing the trophy to the winner in the middle of the paddock, prepared for a daily pandemic press conference instead.

Nothing stops the Derby

Nothing stops the Derby. Not 9/11, not the Great Depression, not even World War II. It goes on in the pouring rain and lingering winter cold. There was sleet in 1989. If horse racing were to utterly collapse in America, some twenty thoroughbreds would remain to enter the gate at Churchill Downs if only for form’s sake. If last year you thought you saw it all with the disqualification of the winner half an hour after the race was done, you were wrong. You have never seen what we saw on Derby Day 2020, which was nothing at all.

Even when the race takes place, history has already been knocked out of kilter by the delay. Powerful and large as they are, three-year-old Thoroughbreds are little more than babies, and the passing of five months can present a shift in maturity, musculature, and speed. The horse who won in May might not win in September. The rhythms of the other two races of the Triple Crown — the Preakness later in May and the Belmont in June — cannot possibly be reproduced. We will never know the greatness we could have seen. In its place, altered stories will rise. We’ll know them when we see them.

NBC tried, bless it. Rather than dropping a movie or a news magazine into the usual Derby slot, it broadcast horsiness anyway. American Pharoah, head poking over the stall door of his fat stud bachelor pad, watched footage of himself win the first leg of the Triple Crown in 2015. He was singularly unimpressed.

Something that didn’t happen

Less of a rerun was a head-to-head computer simulation of each Triple Crown winner running the route, and if you didn’t have your money on Secretariat, I got nothin’.

Nothin’ might have been what we had on the first Saturday in May. But in its absence, the Kentucky Derby loomed over the empty streets of Louisville, the dark television sets in Americans’ living rooms.

Something that didn’t happen can strike just as sharp a blow as something that did. And that is why I didn’t cry when I learned last month that my paycheck had been cut in half, but when I saw the footage of a solo cello playing “My Old Kentucky Home” in an empty Churchill Downs, I did.

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