LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Kentucky Derby is the next major sporting event to move a step closer to normalcy after two years of upheaval adjusting to COVID-19 restrictions.
After fluctuating dates and crowds, Churchill Downs will welcome everybody without restrictions on Saturday, raising hopes of getting back to 150,000 or more beneath the Twin Spires.
If attendance and participation around Louisville and other major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, Final Four and Major League Baseball games are any indication, the atmosphere for the first jewel in horse racing's Triple Crown should have a pre-pandemic feel, though masks are optional.
"I grew up here, so I've been expecting big things out of this year since it opened up to full capacity," Louisville native Brett Rebalsky said during Saturday night's opening at the historic track. "Really, just seeing the city come alive again."
The 2020 running was delayed until Labor Day weekend, then held without spectators. It returned returned to its familiar spring slot eight months later in 2021, but with limited capacity.
At the very least this year should feature the spectrum 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 possibly, a bigger bottom line for a city whose identity still comes from the marquee sporting event.
The initial projected local economic impact from Friday's Kentucky Oaks for fillies and Saturday's Derby was $324 million. But with COVID-19 restrictions lifted for many activities and venues, local officials are optimistic of reaching or exceeding the $400 million Derby season normally generates.
It seems attainable considering last weekend's Thunder Over Louisville air and fireworks show packed the Ohio River waterfront with people on blankets and in lawn chairs. Opening night at Churchill Downs drew 22,207, while companion events such as the Derby marathon and Pegasus Parade attracted crowds resembling pre-pandemic levels.
Event organizers are pulling out all the stops.
The Derby afterparty features an outdoor downtown concert headlined by Grammy-winning superstar Janet Jackson with popular R&B group New Edition.
Put it all together and hotels are filling up again. Occupancy citywide is estimated at 85%, 2% higher than in 2019. The downtown estimate of 94% is inching closer to the pre-pandemic 97% rate.
But even with that, some pandemic hangover remains with supply chain and staffing challenges for area attractions and restaurants.
"We're hoping that people traveling to Louisville for the Derby will take that into account and bring their patience with them," Louisville Tourism marketing spokeswoman Stacey Yates said.
Churchill Downs and its partners anticipate no such staffing issues for spectators after waiting three years to handle a packed house. The historic track will continue selling all-inclusive food and drink packages in reserved seating areas to reduce in-line wait times.
With 30 workers staffing five kiosks and walking the grounds selling cigars, Jonathan Blue predicts "a record year" as the official vendor after a limited approach last spring. Overall, cigar sales are up with alcohol sales steady for the Liquor Barn co-owner, whose statewide chain provided home deliveries for Derby parties during the pandemic.
Distiller and race sponsor Woodford Reserve also anticipates bigger opportunities after two years of marketing the at-home Derby experience. That aspect will continue. But judging from its signage and booths around Churchill Downs, the Versailles, Kentucky-based maker of top-shelf bourbon is excited about getting closer to how things were.
"After these last two years of the lockdown and scaling down, certainly here in Kentucky, everybody's just ready to bust out and party," Woodford Reserve spokesman Chris Poynter said.
"The Derby is such an ingrained part of the DNA of Kentucky that it's really part of the way of life here," Poynter said. "You have Derby, you have horses and you have bourbon. That's the trifecta for Kentuckians."
And even for those outside the Bluegrass State.
The opening-night energy certainly sold Michele Caywood and her husband, Eric, on returning for the Oaks and Derby. Just weaving through fans around the paddock and soaking in the atmosphere of roses and tulips made them feel they had checked off at least part of their bucket-list item.
"As a little girl we used to watch it on television of course, and it's just an amazing race," said Caywood, from Jefferson City, Missouri. "It's just cool to be able to see these horses in person, the talent these jockeys have and when they you see them running on the track, it's amazing."
And a welcomed sight for Derby officials and fans alike.
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