This year’s Kentucky Derby is a surreal distillation of the crises facing the county in 2020
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Churchill Downs stands are empty and the wagering windows closed. Armored police vehicles in the parking lot have replaced throngs of Derby-goers in seersucker and showy hats.
The 146th Kentucky Derby is a surreal distillation of the crises facing the county in 2020. The race, usually in May, is four months late because of the coronavirus pandemic. Still no fans are allowed, so the fabled racetrack is mostly quiet. Multiple groups, including armed militias, are planning protests and counterprotests in the streets outside over police killings of unarmed Black Americans.
The Derby is unfolding in the hometown of Breonna Taylor, a Black emergency medical technician shot dead in her home in March when police burst in to serve a search warrant in the middle of the night. Demonstrators here have been protesting downtown for more than 100 days, calling for the officers involved to be prosecuted and the policing system dismantled.
As the first race started Saturday morning, a group of self-described “patriots” marched through downtown as a counterprotest, many carrying assault rifles and campaign flags for President Donald Trump.
Several other groups are planning to march to the track Saturday afternoon before the marquee race is run, including an armed Black militia. The Louisville Metro Police Department said it is anticipating large-scale demonstrations near the track.
Wanda Martin lives across from the backside of Churchill Downs. Usually her lawn is a party, with food and music and dancing. Friends come from all over the county to visit. Martin grew up in the horse racing business. She worked for trainers, feeding and caring for the racehorses.
It is usually her favorite week of the year. She always sells T-shirts with sayings like “Talk Derby to me” and “Go Baby Go.”
The only thing she could come up with to put on her shirts this year was “2020 Worst Derby Ever.”
She hung them from a clothesline across the front of her lawn.
“We’ve had some good times,” she said. “This is just not Derby. I know it’s for our protection, but it’s not like Derby at all.”
Martin said she isn’t worried about the large-scale demonstrations planned for the neighborhood.
A few hours before the race, the street was filled with police officers, who were responding to a domestic situation in a house adjacent to the racetrack, unrelated to the protests. A man barricaded himself in his house, and police briefly closed the gates as they tried to coax him out.
Martin said it was just one more thing on a list of frustrations this year.
She knows she’s not the only one who feels that way. She’s sold 15 of her shirts.
“It’s true,” she said. “Worst derby ever.”