LEXINGTON, Ky. — The Churchill Downs grandstand will be an eerie sight on this first Saturday in May.
There will be no people packing one of horse racing’s most hallowed grounds on its most famous day. No fancy hats or seersucker suits. No revelry in the infield or mint juleps on Millionaires Row.
And no horses on the track.
For the first time in nearly 150 years, there will be no springtime Kentucky Derby in Louisville.
Not at the real Churchill Downs, at least.
The racetrack’s virtual doppelganger will be as packed with partygoers — and talented Thoroughbreds — as ever. The coronavirus pandemic has postponed the Derby to the first Saturday in September, but the show must go on, real horses or not.
“We felt it was important for the community and horse racing fans to acknowledge and honor the traditional first Saturday in May,” Churchill Downs spokesman Darren Rogers told the Herald-Leader this week. “For many of us, that date, around here in Louisville and Kentucky, is celebrated like any major holiday. We knew we wanted to use a Kentucky Derby at home concept and simultaneously have a fun way to celebrate safely at home, but also use the platform to raise some important COVID-19 emergency relief funds.”
The plan they came up with has the makings of a pretty interesting show.
Earlier this year, Churchill Downs officials saw a virtual rendition of the Grand National — run annually at Aintree Racecourse in England but canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic — and thought something similar might work for the Kentucky Derby.
Rogers said it wouldn’t have been fair to do a fantasy race of this year’s 3-year-old crop, since the Derby prep calendar had already been upended (and the race is still planned to be run later this year). “What kind of race could we have?” track officials mulled.
Their idea: a race featuring the sport’s 13 Triple Crown winners. To pull it off, Churchill Downs teamed up with Inspired Entertainment, the tech company that created the virtual Grand National race, to re-create the famous racetrack and 13 of its most celebrated competitors.
“You will think you’re watching Churchill Downs,” Rogers said. “And I have to give their team a lot of credit, because this has only been a couple of weeks in the works. And they have really done a fabulous job. When you see the video on Saturday — the details of the facility, from the traditional shots of watching the race as you would a live Derby on NBC, the details of the grandstand, and the fans and the stands, the starting gate crew — it’s really, really well done.”
To create this race of champions, select officials from Churchill Downs analyzed past-performance information for each of the 13 Triple Crown winners and also researched the respected opinions of distinguished horse racing experts who have evaluated those horses’ achievements and put them into historical perspective.
The results of this research led to each horse getting assigned a “fundamental probability,” as Inspired Entertainment refers to it — basically, the overall chance that horse has to win this race.
The horse assigned the highest winning probability isn’t necessarily going to cross the virtual finish line first Saturday evening. Rogers compared the process for choosing a winner to the NBA lottery system and its ping-pong ball display.
“Essentially, the result is determined by a weighted lottery system,” he said. “So think of the NBA lottery — if there were 100 numbered table tennis balls, and one is drawn to determine the winner. Twenty of the balls in the bin may have the number of the horse considered to be the favorite in the race. And then the horse deemed to be the longest shot in the field may only have two of the balls. Now, in the end, the randomly drawn ball is going to determine the winner.
“We have fed into their computer models and assessed, basically, a win probability percentage for each horse.”
So, just like in real horse races, luck — good and bad — will play a factor. The “best” horse won’t necessarily win the race. An upset could occur.
Though there is no official wagering through Churchill Downs on Saturday’s virtual race, veteran oddsmaker Mike Battaglia has a set a morning line. Secretariat — the 1973 champion who many consider to be the greatest Thoroughbred in American racing history — is the 7-2 favorite.
“I’ve got to give Secretariat the edge,” said Battaglia, who has set the morning line at Churchill Downs since 1974. “This was a really fun morning line to make and I’m looking forward to the race.”
The longest shots are Assault, Sir Barton, Gallant Fox and Omaha, all at 20-1.
“I didn’t have the heart to hang more than 20-1 odds on a Triple Crown winner!” Battaglia quipped in a press release this week.
Rogers said it’s important to note that Battaglia was not aware of the probabilities Churchill Downs and Inspired Entertainment used to create Saturday’s race, and his morning line is “totally independent” of the data provided to make the final result. (The independent gambling website BetOnline.Ag released its own odds Thursday — with Secretariat as a 2-1 favorite — and that site is actually taking wagers on the virtual race).
Rogers also noted that the probabilities assigned to each horse were based on research encompassing that horse’s entire career, not just the races leading up to each Triple Crown winner’s respective Derby. And if you’re handicapping at home, you don’t have to take the slop into account. Unlike the past few Kentucky Derbys, which have been soaked with rain, the simulated edition will be run under ideal conditions.
“Since it’s a fantasy, it’s sunny and 75 and we have a fast track,” Rogers said.
This virtual race has already been run. Rogers said only two people at Churchill Downs know the result. He estimated a similar number of people on the NBC Sports production crew, as well as a small number at Inspired Entertainment, had also seen it.
The plan is to have veteran announcer Larry Collmus call the race for the NBC broadcast.
“There’s not many people who know the outcome,” Rogers said.
The virtual race has provided for plenty of conversation among horse racing fans since it was announced last week. The idea of watching Secretariat, Citation, Seattle Slew, American Pharoah and all the rest together on the track — even a simulated one — is enticing.
A scan of the race entries does yield a conundrum.
Eddie Arcaro rode two Triple Crown winners: Whirlaway in 1941 and Citation in 1948. Will virtual Eddie have to pick one over the other — a choice many successful jockeys are often met with this time of year?
“No, Eddie Arcaro doesn’t have to choose,” Rogers said. “It’s a fantasy race, so, guess what? We decided to clone him!”
NBC’s coverage Saturday will stretch from 3 to 6 p.m. EDT, with the virtual race — dubbed the “Triple Crown Showdown” — set to go off at about 5:45 p.m. The broadcast will also feature a rendition of Derby Day standard “My Old Kentucky Home” at 5:15 p.m., a replay of American Pharoah’s Derby victory at 5:30 p.m., and plenty of other highlights throughout the afternoon.
Churchill Downs officials have also set up activities that can be followed online Saturday, including virtual tours of the track, features just for kids, and a handicapper’s roundtable for the Triple Crown Showdown. The full schedule is available at KentuckyDerbyParty.com, and Rogers encouraged race fans to follow along on Churchill’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts, and use the #KYDerbyAtHome hashtag.
In a time where Zoom calls have become a primary means of communication for friends and families who can’t see each other in person, Derby officials hope Saturday’s events can become a shared experience for those who would otherwise be watching the race together.
“The Kentucky Derby, for many of us, it’s a communal experience,” Rogers said. “And it’s so communal with the people that are in attendance. A lot of people share boxes that they’ve had with folks for years. They know the people in the boxes next to them. They picnic in the infield in the same spot every year. So this is a way for us to have a safe, at-home experience with family members.
“I’m envisioning everyone to have their mobile device or maybe a laptop open, and tuned into NBC from 3 to 6.”
You can play along at home, too.
Kentuckyderby.com has a page set up that allows fans to select the horse they think will win Saturday’s virtual race. If that horse wins, everyone who picked him will be entered in a sweepstakes to win “an ultimate Kentucky Derby VIP package.” The contest is free to enter, but the website does have a prompt where racing fans can make a charitable donation, with that money directed to the Team Kentucky Fund, the Direct Relief fund benefiting healthcare workers, and a small percentage going to the Relief for Equine Industry Needs fund that helps backstretch workers and their families that have been upended by COVID-19.
Churchill Downs has pledged to match up to $1 million in donations, so, ideally, Saturday’s efforts will raise more than $2 million in total.
“That would be great,” Rogers said. “It’s a way to use the platform of the day to raise some important money.”