Wiedmer: As long as Secretariat still won, virtual Kentucky Derby better than no Derby

AP file photo by Mark Lennihan / A statue honors 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.

One American sporting event stands alone when it comes to the day it is staged. The Kentucky Derby, the most famous horse race on the planet, has been held on the first Saturday in May at Louisville's Churchill Downs every year since 1946.

At least it had been until this past Saturday, when horse racing enthusiasts the world over had to content themselves with a virtual Derby known as the "Triple Crown Showdown" near the close of NBC's three-hour coverage of the race day that wasn't. The real Derby is now scheduled to be run on Saturday, Sept. 5, the coronavirus pandemic willing.

So the Showdown - featuring all 13 past Triple Crown winners - went off at 5:45 p.m. EDT, and just as any wise horse bettor should have predicted, the incomparable Secretariat basically duplicated his 1973 "Run for the Roses" performance. This time he outlasted Citation rather than Sham. Seattle Slew finished third on Saturday, followed by Affirmed and American Pharoah.

And it was certainly better than having no such race, though it did seem as if NBC could have done more with it than the brief time the network devoted. Maybe had more predictions from trainers such as Bob Baffert, who has saddled five Derby winners and two Triple Crown champs in Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018).

Instead, a lot of coverage seemed devoted to Pharoah's Derby and Triple Crown in general, which was somewhat fair, but having been a teenager when Secretariat won and having seen no horse since that could carry his feedbag, I could have watched stories about "Big Red" for the entire three hours.

But even having a virtual Derby fix was somewhat satisfactory, especially when they replayed the singing of "My Old Kentucky Home" before the start of Pharoah's 2015 win.

As a native Kentuckian, it's hard to describe the emotions that run through me during the playing of that Stephen Foster classic each year. Kentucky is the 15th-oldest state in the country, blessed with marvelous historical moments and achievements: Abraham Lincoln was born there, the bourbon industry is centered there, the Derby is the highlight of the thoroughbred racing industry.

But Kentucky is also home to environmentally destructive coal and a drug problem in the eastern portion of the state that may be as bad as any relatively small, predominantly rural state anywhere.

All that's forgotten on Derby Day, however. Churchill Downs is annually filled with 150,000 or more spectators, most of them - excepting the college kids who take over the infield - dressed in their brightest and most splendid attire, everything from over-the-top hats on many of the women to numerous pastel colors on men's sport coats. It's like Easter morning on steroids.

But this year it was almost completely empty, as it should have been, even if the weather - so uncooperative in recent years - shined clear and bright this time around.

Or as Tom Hammond, the former host of NBC's Derby telecasts, told the Lexington Herald-Leader on Friday: "Wouldn't you know it, after all this rain, it's going to be a nice day. It doesn't seem fair."

For sports enthusiasts the nation over, not much seems fair as more than 40% of the world's grandest athletic events - everything from Wimbledon in tennis, to the British Open in golf, to the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments - have already been canceled.

Then there are those events that have officially been delayed such as the Masters and the Derby.

In their places we've found virtual Derbies and virtual NASCAR and a stay-at-home NFL draft that produced its biggest television numbers ever.

Thankfully - unlike last year's 22-minute delay before officially declaring Country House the longshot winner of the Derby after Maximum Security, who crossed the finish line first, was taken down for cutting off two horses down the stretch - Secretariat's virtual run stood.

In a nod to last year, as well as Big Red's greatness, racing analyst Randy Moss told NBC's audience just before the Triple Crown Showdown: "If Secretariat doesn't win this simulated race, we're going to have an objection on the first Saturday in May for a second consecutive year, and this one is going to come from me."

But Secretariat won, which might be at least one reason why, according to ESPN, some 263 streets across the country contain the name "Secretariat" in some fashion.

Only time will tell if the winner of the second all-time running of the Kentucky Turtle Derby - the first came in 1945, when the Kentucky Derby for horses was moved to June - will become as beloved as Secretariat.

An 86-to-1 longshot, What The Turtleneck ultimately won the race dubbed "The Slowest Eight Minutes in Sports," later Saturday evening over such competitors as Seattle Slow and Green Mamba.

And just as longtime Triple Crown announcer Larry Collmus called the virtual Derby for NBC, he also called the turtle race on YouTube.

Before that call, Collmus said of the Turtle Derby: "It is weird, but there's been a lot of weird going on the last couple of months in this country."

And that weirdness figures to continue for at least a couple of more months at the very least.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.