After being held without fans last year, the Kentucky Derby welcomed more than 51,000 fans to Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday. It was the largest crowd to gather at a U.S. sporting event since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The official attendance at this year’s Derby was 51,838, according to organizers.
The number is a fraction of the 150,000 or more fans who typically fill the stands at the annual event; but, as local reporters pointed out, the Derby crowd was still larger than the 47,218 people who attended the University of Alabama’s spring football game in mid-April — which, at the time, had been dubbed the most crowded sporting event in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic.
In an effort to alleviate concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19, Derby officials had said temperature checks would be conducted at the gates and masks would be mandatory on the grounds.
According to The Lexington Herald-Leader, masks were indeed the “newest fashion accessory” at this year’s Derby, which is perhaps as well-known for its ornately costumed fans as for its horse racing. Many people, however, were flouting the mask mandate by wearing face coverings on their chins and around their necks, the paper said, adding: “Mostly they were nowhere to be found.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently relaxed its mask guidelines for Americans who have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The CDC said earlier this week that people who have been fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks when spending time alone or with small groups outdoors. The agency still, however, recommended mask-wearing for all Americans in crowded situations, both indoors and out.
The Kentucky Derby, which was first held in 1875, is the country’s oldest continuously held sporting event.
In 2020, it was rescheduled from May to September due to the pandemic. It was only the second time in the event’s history that it had been rescheduled; the first was at the end of World War II.
No fans attended the 2020 Derby. Footage from last year’s event shows mostly empty seats and a smattering of officials, horse owners and their guests — most of them masked.
At this year’s event, the big winner was Medina Spirit, trained by two-time Triple Crown trainer Bob Baffert and ridden by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez.
As horses raced and fans sipped mint juleps inside Churchill Downs on Saturday, a group of protesters outside the complex carried signs remembering Breonna Taylor.
Earlier this week, a horse named “Breonna” — after Taylor, a woman who was shot dead in her apartment by Louisville police last year — competed in and won a Derby Week race at Churchill Downs.
The horse is owned by a thoroughbred racing company run by Sam Aguiar, an attorney who represents Taylor’s family, and his wife Janelle, CNN reported.
Aguiar said it had been his wife’s idea to name the horse after Taylor because of its resilience and beauty.
Critics, however, have expressed horror at the naming.
“They could’ve named the horse after Breonna Taylor’s favorite song or bird or color or time of day or star or season or city. There are so many ways to honor her AND honor her humanity. NAMING CHATTEL AFTER A BLACK PERSON WILL NEVER BE LOVE,” writer Saeed Jones wrote on Twitter, calling the decision “rancid” and “depraved.”