It was something nearly unseen in the surreal spring of 2020, in the midst of a raging, global coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic: a major live sporting event, not canceled or postponed, but happening.
Except it was not seen at all, except by those watching from afar on TV.
The nationwide ban on large public gatherings that has shut down sports turned Saturday’s 69th running of the Florida Derby into a ghost race at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach — no fans allowed, no media, not even horse owners could attend.
Strong betting favorite Tiz the Law won the Grade 1 thoroughbred horse race as expected with jockey Manuel Franco aboard to automatically qualify for the now-postponed Kentucky Derby, ahead of the nine-horse field after four scratches.
“He broke out of there perfectly, like a shot,” Franco said. “All the times when I called on him a little bit, he was there for me.”
Notably, the post-race quotes provided by the track dealt only with the race itself, with none about the bizarre context of running a major race with no spectators.
Gouverneur Morris, the horse partly owned by longtime former Miami Herald sports writer Clark Spencer, finished fourth, after going off as the fourth favorite at 9-2 odds.. The Gov got caught in a crowd early and rallied late to miss third by a nose. This would have been the horse’s final chance to reach Churchill Down under normal circumstances. But in these anything but normal circumstances, the horse will now have more chances to qualify — presuming tracks stay open or reopen well before the Sept. 5 rescheduled Kentucky Derby.
Because even owners couldn’t attend, Spencer watched the race on TV from his home in Pembroke Pines as his horse ran at a track only 10 miles away.
“We are not disappointed,” Spencer said minutes after the early evening race ended. “He was all heart to get fourth. He was in the mix at the end. He proved he belongs in the upper echelon. It’s a long way to September.”
It was the historic, eerie setting that dominated and overshadowed the day.
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The event seemed an anomaly; Tiz the Law’s triumph turned small.
Race tracks in New York, Kentucky and elsewhere have closed completely, but with no such state edict yet in Florida, Saturday’s race went on — despite a stricter stay-at-home mandate from Broward County this week, and despite the city asking the track to cancel the race. Even one Florida Derby jockey, Javier Castellano, testing positive for COVID-19 did not stop the starting gates from banging open Saturday.
You could make a strong argument Saturday’s Florida Derby Day should not have gone on at all.
Instead the race was run, but with zero spectators watching live. No cheering. No lines at betting windows. No celebrating masses drinking and partying. No promenade of women in festive, wide-brimmed hats.
Just the thud of horse hooves around a 1 1/8-mile dirt track. No media or owners. Only three persons, the trainer and two handlers, could accompany each horse competing in the 14 races culminating with the Florida Derby, a prep race for the (eventual) Triple Crown season.
A normally festive day of racing was shrouded in silence.
Essential track employees and the horses’ handlers wore face masks and gloves. Jockeys had their temperatures and blood pressure taken before being allowed to ride. The starting gate was disinfected after every race.
The absence of on-site betting and casino revenue forced the track to reduce its overall payout purse for the day’s card from $1.95 million to $1.55 million, and the main-race purse from $1 million to $750,000 — $535,000 to winning horse Tiz the Law.
Any other year, the prestige of the Florida Derby would command center stage along with the winning horse.
Since its start in 1952 the Florida Derby has produced more Triple Crown race winners (59) than any other prep race: 24 in the Kentucky Derby, 19 in the Preakness Stakes and 16 in the Belmont.
But this is not any other year.
This year, Tiz the Law’s victory is understandably overshadowed by the surrounding pandemic virus threat — and even by the controversy over whether this race should have been run at all, even sans spectators.
The celebration in the winner’s circle happened Saturday evening with no fans cheering and coronavirus deaths spiking.
This is sports in America in the spring of 2020.