Will large crowds return to the Kentucky Derby without COVID restrictions?

Attendance at the last two Kentucky Derbys will forever feature asterisks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but those closest to the event predict large crowds will return this year.

Veteran Coach D. Wayne Lukas is confident fans are returning to the sport, highlighting the April 2 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park which brought in a record crowd estimated at 60,000 fans.

“The infield was packed,” Lukas said. “That’s a lot of people coming back to the game. I think we’re doing well.

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A spokesperson for Churchill Downs did not respond to a request for comment, but it appears the track is gearing up for the May 7 Kentucky Derby as it did before COVID. No masks are required per federal and state guidelines, and there are no limits on crowd size.

In a presentation to investors in March, Churchill Downs based its projections on the possibility of 170,000 fans – about 110,000 fans without a reserved seat (the majority of those in the infield) and about 60,000 with a reserved seat. “Demand for premium tickets continues to outstrip supply,” the report said.

In a conference call with investors on Thursday, Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said: “Based on anticipated reserve ticket sales, we expect to deliver record Derby results.”

“It’s really great to see the festivities and the energy of the Derby returning to its traditional frenzy,” said Carstanjen. “The energy and excitement are back.”

Attendance peaked in 2015 with a record 170,513 fans and declined slightly over the next four years:

  • 167,227 in 2016
  • 158,070 in 2017
  • 157,813 in 2018
  • 150,729 in 2019

It’s worth noting that 2015 was the last of five years in which it didn’t rain on Derby day, with at least a trace of precipitation recorded every year from 2016 to 2019.

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Churchill Downs postponed the Kentucky Derby to September 5. Although limited equestrian connections and media were allowed to attend, official attendance is 0.

Last year the Kentucky Derby returned to the first Saturday in May, but Churchill limited ticket sales due to the pandemic. Attendance was announced at 51,838.

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Average ticket prices for this year’s Kentucky Derby are skyrocketing, according to a broker. Jenna McKernan, PR and Communications Manager for SeatGeek.comsaid average prices for this year are $742, down from $433 in 2019.

“Since live events returned, we’ve seen strong pent-up demand,” McKernan said. “Fans can’t wait to come back there to see their favorite shows and events, including the Kentucky Derby.”

Coach Kenny McPeek said he was encouraged by the crowds at Keeneland this month and expects huge crowds to return to the Kentucky Derby.

“Everything will come back,” McPeek said. “People are excited to go out, and it’s a big event. People mostly seem to be getting back to normal, and you hope it stays that way.

Jason Frakes: 502-582-4046; jfrakes@courier-journal.com; Twitter: @KentuckyDerbyCJ.