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Kentucky Derby moving to Sept. 5 due to coronavirus; discussions continue about possible Preakness postponement

With the official announcement Tuesday morning that the Kentucky Derby will move to Sept. 5 because of the coronavirus pandemic, questions quickly shifted to the possibility of a similar shift for the Preakness Stakes.

“We are in active discussions to POSTPONE the Preakness Stakes until September," a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan wrote on Twitter just a few hours after Derby officials confirmed their delay.

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Maryland’s most-attended single-day sporting event is traditionally held two weeks after the Derby at Pimlico Race Course — May 16 this year. Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said organizers of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes are currently negotiating with NBC to move their races to September and early October, respectively.

“It’s all possible,” Carstanjen said on a conference call announcing the Derby postponement. “They just have to work it out together, and I hope they do.”

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Derby officials gave organizers of the Preakness and Belmont a “heads up” as they finalized plans for the Sept. 5 move. Carstanjen said his counterparts were “receptive” but “they have their own questions.” He added that the schedule shifts could “make for a really unique Triple Crown season and a perfect set-up for this year’s Breeders’ Cup.”

NBC issued a statement later in the morning, saying: “We worked closely with Churchill Downs on this scheduling. While we appreciate the traditional sequencing of the Triple Crown races, these are uncharted waters. We will work with our partners who run the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes to determine the most appropriate timing.”

A spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young also avoided committing to a specific time frame. “We will continue to work closely with the Maryland Jockey Club," the mayor’s chief of communications, Lester Davis, said in a statement. “There will be a Preakness at Pimlico at a time when it is deemed safe and after the Maryland Jockey Club has coordinated with the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.”

Late Monday, the Maryland Jockey Club issued a statement saying: “Our first priority in these difficult times is the health and welfare of our industry participants and the public at large. We are working with state and local governments, our industry participants, media and other affiliates to determine the most appropriate time to conduct the Preakness Stakes. While we are mindful of the challenges these times present, we also know that events like the Preakness Stakes can help restore our sense of place and economic well-being to our communities and state. As soon as we have further clarity on these matters we will inform all.”

A spokesman for The Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico, said last week that the company was closely monitoring the pandemic in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

The Derby postponement seemingly became inevitable Sunday when the CDC published guidelines recommending an eight-week moratorium on gatherings of more than 50 people. The Derby regularly draws more than 150,000 spectators and ranks as Louisville’s signature civic and tourist event.

“We believe moving our iconic event to Labor Day weekend this year will enable our country to have time to contain the spread of the coronavirus,” Carstanjen said. “It had to be done. We own it, and we’ll make it a really special day.”

He expressed confidence that the Derby will be run this year despite significant uncertainties about how long the coronavirus pandemic will alter the nation’s routines. “Certainly, things can change over time, but this was a very thoughtful, carefully considered plan,” Carstanjen said. “We feel really confident about it. We also feel really confident that we are going to run the Kentucky Derby, and we are going to run it with a crowd. The Kentucky Derby is a participatory event. Its energy and its magic really come from everybody participating and being there to enjoy it.”

Trainer Mark Casse, who won the 2019 Preakness with War of Will, said he’s optimistic that the Triple Crown events will retain their unique aura in the fall.

“I mean, everything’s going to be different, right," he said on a conference call Tuesday. "I think if it’s well planned out, it can be just as exciting. Why not? I don’t know that it’s necessarily the time of year. It’s just the events. We’re still going to have great events. So I’m looking forward to it.”

Casse predicted the delays will lead to a different mix of contenders, give the natural maturation of thoroughbreds during their 3-year-old years.

“You’re going to see some adults," he said. "You’re going to see probably a bigger, stronger horse. You’re going to see a more mature horse. No matter what, you have to have luck. You’re going to see some horses go by the wayside as we go, and then there’s going to be some coming on that if we had run on the first Saturday in May, they would have never had any chance.”

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Carstanjen said Derby officials will tweak their qualifying process, rewarding points to the top finishers in spring and summer races that usually fall outside the run-up to the Triple Crown series.

The Derby has been postponed one other time in its 145-year history, during the last days of World War II in 1945. The Preakness was also delayed that year, running one week after the Derby on June 16.

Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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