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BEYOND THE PRESSBOX

Hats, mint juleps and a long-shot remembered: Kentucky Derby returns to traditional weekend

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In a sign that we just might be getting back to some semblance of normal, the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby will be this weekend.

It marks a return of the “most exciting two minutes in sports” to its traditional time on the first Saturday in May.

Last year, the race, which is considered the Super Bowl of horse racing, was held in September and without any spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This weekend, the race will return to its rightful place in the sports universe, but not without some restrictions. Plans called for limiting spectators to about 40 or 50 percent of capacity in the reserved seating areas at Churchill Downs, or to about 25,000 to 30,000 racing fans.

Race officials say they may consider selling general admission tickets to the infield if the pandemic continues to improve.

But no matter what the final arrangements will be, it will be a big improvement over last year when the first leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown was run in front of a virtually empty stadium, giving it an eerie, post-apocalyptic vibe.

According to WalletHub.com, the race lost $122 million in ticket revenue last year. According to the same web site, the total amount of money wagered on the race was down about 50 percent -- to $126 million -- compared to the year before.

But with the return of fans, even at half capacity, that will bring out some of the color and tradition that the race is known for --- the fashionable, often pricey hats worn by women racing races and the ubiquitous mint juleps, the signature cocktail of the race, among just a few.

Of course, the chance to see history is also one of the things that makes the race so special.

In nearly a century and a half, just 13 horses have won the Derby and have gone on to win the Preakness and Belmont to capture the coveted Triple Crown. The most recent were Justify in 2018 and American Pharoah in 2015.

American Pharoah, with his misspelled name, ended 37 years without a Triple Crown champion.

And who can forget perhaps the greatest upset in Derby history by a horse with huge Borderland ties.

Mine That Bird was a 50-to-1 longshot in 2009 and came out of nowhere to win the race. Mine That Bird had raced at Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino and came in second at the Borderland Derby (now the Mine That Bird Derby) and fourth in the Sunland Derby, which has been a qualifying race for the Kentucky Derby in the past.

Unfortunately, the entire live racing season at Sunland Park was canceled this year, after seeing the last month axed in 2020. Both moves were because of the pandemic.

You can watch the Kentucky Derby on NBC TV; comprehensive coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. Mountain time on Saturday. Post time is estimated to be at 4:57 p.m.

Settle back, break out the chips and dip and celebrate one of sports true spectacles, even if it does have some different twists because of the pandemic.

Kentucky Derby