Kentucky Derby Delay Sees Louisville Holding Out for September

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  • The May race has been postponed for just the second time in its 145-year history.
  • With an estimated economic impact of nearly $400 million, the Derby is still critical to Louisville’s hospitality industry success.

Kentucky Derby September
Photo Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

For just the second time in its 145-year history, and first since 1945, the Kentucky Derby will not be held in May. Instead, it is now scheduled for September 5. 

The shift in date, however, won’t change how important the first leg of the Triple Crown is to the city of Louisville, or how Louisville Tourism positions the event, which is the most important to the city’s economy. The other two legs of the Triple Crown- the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes- have yet to be rescheduled.

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Kentucky Derby Weekend 2019 had an estimated economic impact of $356.5 million, and organizers were expecting closer to $400 million this year. The next closest 2019 event in economic impact in Louisville was the Mid-America Trucking Show, which brought an estimated $25 million to the city.

“I don’t think it really changes at this moment in time,” Stacey Yates, Louisville Tourism’s vice president of marketing and communications, said about how the rescheduling may change the city’s plans.

A couple of factors play into that thought process, Yates said. Most significantly is that Louisville Tourism, a destination marketing organization, doesn’t promote the actual Kentucky Derby; instead, it uses the culture around the race – like Southern cuisine, mint juleps, and fancy hats – as a piece of Louisville’s brand year-round. 

For the actual race, people just show up. Without promoting the weekend and leaning on the event’s legacy, more than 270,000 people make their way to Louisville – including 150,000 at Churchill Downs – driving hotel rates up 340%.

“The city is basically sold out for that weekend each year,” Yates said. “So while we will only use earned and social media to communicate the date change and it might look a little different at the end of summer versus early spring, the reschedule will not really affect how Louisville Tourism markets.”

The coronavirus outbreak could put a damper on the organization’s #MintJulepMonth, which takes place all of April as a lead up to the Kentucky Derby, honoring the minty bourbon drink.

With the end of War World II as the only other time the Derby has been rescheduled, racetrack Churchill Downs felt it was important to keep the city’s economic driver on the calendar. 

“We really feel like it is not ours, but the ownership is shared by the city of Louisville and the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Churchill Downs Vice President of Corporate Communications Tonya Abeln said. “We wanted our city to be able to come together in celebration, this year more than ever, and to give local businesses a chance to rebound from the losses as a result of COVID-19.”

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The coronavirus outbreak has put a damper on tourism bureaus across the country, not to mention for millions of hospitality workers, as the economy has screeched to a halt. In Louisville, there are nearly 30,000 workers who depend on tourism, the Kentucky Derby and its supporting events, which will be important to the service economy after the long period of inactivity. The derby was purposefully scheduled for September, normally a light period of traffic in Louisville. 

“This news bodes well for increased revenues during that time,” Louisville Tourism President and CEO Karen Williams said. “With the other growing festivals and events planned for the month, such as the popular DWP concerts, we are looking forward to tourism rebounding and having a robust September.”