Capacity crowd, big hats, mint juleps

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“The Derby is so much part of Kentucky’s DNA that it’s truly part of the way of life here.”

Epicenter runs down the track during morning practice for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1 in Louisville, Kentucky. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The Kentucky Derby is the next major sporting event to move closer to normalcy after two years of upheaval adjusting to COVID-19 restrictions.

After fluctuating dates and crowds, Churchill Downs will welcome everyone without restrictions on Saturday, raising hopes of a return to 150,000 or more under the Twin Spiers.

If the attendance and turnout around Louisville and other major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, Final Four and Major League Baseball games is any indication, the atmosphere of the first jewel in the triple crown of horse racing should have a pre-pandemic feel, although masks are optional.

“I grew up here, so I expected big things this year since it opened at full capacity,” Louisville native Brett Rebalsky said during Saturday night’s opener at the historic track. . “Really, just seeing the city come to life.”

The 2020 race was postponed to Labor Day weekend and then held without spectators. It returned to its familiar spring slot eight months later in 2021, but with limited capacity.

At the very least, this year should present the specter of women in big hats and fascinators and men in seersucker suits, sipping bourbon and mint juleps as cigar smoke wafts through the air.

And perhaps, a more important result for a city whose identity still comes from the renowned sporting event.

The projected initial local economic impact of Friday’s Kentucky Oaks for Fillies and Saturday’s Derby was $324 million. But with the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions for many activities and venues, local officials are optimistic about reaching or exceeding the $400 million the Derby season normally generates.

That seems achievable given that last weekend’s Thunder Over Louisville fireworks and air show packed the Ohio River waterfront with people on blankets and lawn chairs. Opening night at Churchill Downs drew 22,207 people, while complementary events such as the Marathon Derby and Pegasus Parade drew crowds resembling pre-pandemic levels.

Event organizers make every effort.

The Derby afterparty features an outdoor concert in the city center headlined by Grammy-winning superstar Janet Jackson with popular R&B group New Edition.

Put it all together and the hotels fill up again. Citywide occupancy is estimated at 85%, up 2% from 2019. The downtown estimate of 94% is slowly approaching the pre-pandemic rate of 97%.

But even with that, there remains some pandemic hangover with supply chain and staffing issues for area attractions and restaurants.

“We hope people who come to Louisville for the Derby will take this into consideration and bring their patience,” said Louisville Tourism marketing spokeswoman Stacey Yates.

Churchill Downs and its partners do not foresee such staffing problems for spectators after waiting three years to manage a full house. The historic track will continue to sell all-inclusive food and drink packages in reserved seating areas to reduce wait times in line.

With 30 workers manning five kiosks and walking the grounds to sell cigars, Jonathan Blue predicts “a banner year” as official seller after a limited approach last spring. Overall cigar sales are up, with liquor sales steady for the co-owner of Liquor Barn, whose statewide chain provided home deliveries for Derby nights during the pandemic.

Distiller and racing sponsor Woodford Reserve also foresee greater opportunities after two years of marketing the home Derby experience. This aspect will continue. But judging by its signage and stalls around Churchill Downs, the Versailles, Ky.-based, high-end bourbon maker is thrilled to be getting closer to the situation.

“After the past two years of lockdown and downsizing, certainly here in Kentucky, everyone is just ready to get out there and party,” Woodford Reserve spokesman Chris Poynter said.

“The Derby is so ingrained in Kentucky’s DNA that it’s really part of the way of life here,” Poynter said. “You have Derby, you have horses and you have bourbon. This is the trifecta for the Kentuckians.

And even for those outside the Bluegrass State.

The energy of opening night certainly sold Michele Caywood and her husband, Eric, as they returned for the Oaks and Derby. Just weaving fans around the paddock and soaking up the atmosphere of roses and tulips made them feel like they had at least part of their to-do list checked off.

“As a little girl, we used to watch it on TV of course, and it’s just an amazing ride,” said Caywood, of Jefferson City, Missouri. “It’s just cool to be able to see these horses in person, the skill of these jockeys and when you see them racing around the track, it’s amazing.”

And a welcome sight for Derby officials and fans.

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