Kentucky Derby returns with optimistic spectators

Kentucky Derby 2021
Spectators returned to the Kentucky Derby for the first time in two years, expressing optimism and belief as the nation returns to normalcy from the COVID-19 pandemic. (Mike Tyrrell/MEDILL)

By Mike Tyrrell and Brevin Fleischer
Medill Reports

Shannon Klimuk has attended the Kentucky Derby nine different times throughout her life. A certified regular at this point, she has worn flowing dresses and oversized hats, sipped on and even gulped down mint juleps, and witnessed incredible races from some of the world’s most majestic animals.

Yet even with all her experience, she said this pandemic-altered 2021 version of the Run for the Roses was the best one yet — not in spite of the COVID-19 restrictions but because of them.

“The crowds are much less crazy,” Klimuk said. “It is so much nicer to be able to walk around and just be able to move freely and see more people and get down to the paddock without having to fight your way through. It is a much more pleasant experience. I absolutely love it more.”

This year’s Kentucky Derby was unique in the race’s 147-year history. On May 1, after a year of national misery and hardship brought forth by COVID-19, spectators returned to historic Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, to witness the “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” for the first time since 2019. For those who attended, it was a different Derby, but one teeming with optimism and belief in the face of a deadly pandemic.

“This year is important because this is the first time in a long time where things have felt a little bit normal,” said Kennedy Breeding, a Kentucky native who attended the Derby for first time since 2018, when eventual Triple Crown-winner Justify captured victory. “You feel this sense of unity just because of what has happened this past year. I don’t think we could have asked for anything better. It has been incredible.”

Due to the virus and public health concerns, the capacity at Churchill Downs was significantly reduced for this year’s event, with 51,838 in attendance compared with the 2019 Derby’s attendance of 150,729. But contrast this year’s thousands with the spectator-less and delayed 2020 edition, and the appreciation for the 2021 Derby protrudes.

“You look around here, people are pretty damn happy,” said David McGrath, who attended his first-ever Derby. “It makes you feel good to be an American. I’ve got to believe that some portion of this is people just so excited to be at the tail end of this pandemic.”

With vaccination distribution continuing throughout the nation, this year’s Derby offered a glimpse at the country’s gradual return to normalcy and fight against the deadly virus.

In fact, in the weeks following the race, more sporting events with spectators occurred throughout the country, including the PGA Championship, where 10,000 were permitted entry each round. Likewise, the NBA playoffs have tipped off, and arenas have also welcomed fans, such as Madison Square Garden, which sold out 15,000 seats for Games 1 and 2 of the New York Knicks’ first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks.

Clearly, the Derby set the stage for sporting normalcy to resume — with thousands of excited spectators. The Indianapolis 500 was held with officially 135,000 fans on May 30, overtaking the Derby as the largest crowd for a sporting event in the United States since March 2020.

Derby Spectators 2021
With an official (and reduced) attendance of 51,838, the Kentucky Derby was one of the largest gatherings at a sporting event in the United States since March 2020. (Mike Tyrrell/MEDILL)

“It is about getting back to normal,” said Nikki Thomson, who made her eighth appearance at the Derby. “I think last year, having it in September was so weird. But this Derby shows we are getting there. Baby steps are the key.”

Still, the virus has not been eradicated, having killed over 598,000 Americans and counting. So even with the nationwide distribution of vaccines, Derby attendees recognized and appreciated the rationale behind the reduced crowd.

“We’ve been so isolated over the last year that getting out and being in big groups has been a little overwhelming to some degree,” Thomson said. “I think easing back into it is a good thing.”

On the other hand, her husband, Ian Thomson, was more willing to openly interact with the large crowd, embracing a return to pre-pandemic life.

“Outside doesn’t bother me all that much,” Ian Thomson said. “I’m vaccinated also. Because of that, the risk feels really low.”

For Breeding, this Kentucky Derby — even amid its restrictions and abnormalities — epitomized the unity and positivity that have been spreading across the country in recent months.

“This is definitely a breath of fresh air,” Breeding said. “I feel like the way that Kentucky as a state approached the pandemic was always about doing things together, and now we finally get to celebrate our hard work together, in something as monumental as the Kentucky Derby. It is wonderful.”

Despite protests from several Kentucky government officials and local business owners who would like to see all restrictions lifted, Gov. Andy Beshear continues to exercise caution regarding the state’s reopening. Perhaps this methodical approach has contributed to Kentucky having fewer total cases and deaths than its neighboring states of Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio and Virginia. West Virginia is the only state in the region with a total case and death count lower than Kentucky.

Additionally, since the Derby was held, the COVID-19 positivity rates have dropped in Jefferson County (where Louisville is located), from 5.5% on race day, to 2.2% on June 6. Despite holding a mass event of over 50,000 people, it appears there was no increase in positive virus tests as a result. This serves as an encouraging indication that future sporting events can continue to be held with fans in attendance, especially those in outdoor venues.

Kentucky’s relative (although certainly not complete) prosperity in the fight against COVID-19 enabled spectators at the Derby to appreciate the race and its atmosphere after not attending last year.

“People are very enthusiastic,” McGrath said. “They totally get into it with the outfits and everything else. It is pretty joyous. It is definitely a party atmosphere.”

An irregular Kentucky Derby culminated with an irregular result, as Medina Spirit (listed at 12-1 odds), won the race, upsetting the favorite, Essential Quality, who finished fourth. However, Medina Spirit’s victory is now under scrutiny, as the horse tested positive for an unsanctioned amount of betamethasone. It is still unknown whether this win will be upheld or if Medina Spirit will become just the second Derby winner to receive a drug disqualification.

Despite the race’s unconventional conclusion, this year’s Kentucky Derby will be defined by its return to convention, as legions of fans packed the stands at Churchill Downs on a warm, sunny day to bathe in optimism and to approximate life as it was lived prior to March 2020.

“It is just so nice to be outside again at a social event, to get dressed up and to find my makeup and clothes again,” Klimuk said. “To come out and do this after two years and see the happiness again, it is truly a great experience.”

The country still has work to do in the struggle against this world-altering pandemic, but one beautiful Saturday afternoon at the racetrack offered a glimpse at a brighter, hopefully not-so-distant future. Until the virus has been defeated, those glimpses will have to be enough.

Mike Tyrrell is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at

Brevin Fleischer is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrevinFleischer.