The Kentucky Derby will not be run on Saturday, but the folks at Churchill Downs have come up with an entertaining diversion from the Great Sickness: a virtual horse race pitting the 13 winners of the Triple Crown against one another.
The concept of staging a simulated race was actually lifted from the Grand National, a staple of steeplechase racing in England for more than 180 years. After the race was canceled by the coronavirus pandemic, organizers last month staged a virtual running featuring 40 horses modeled off their real-life counterparts. There was betting on the race, which was won by 18-1 shot Potter’s Corner, with profits going to the National Health Service’s charitable wing.
Churchill Downs management has taken the concept a bit further by trying to settle once and for all the debate over which Triple Crown winner – Sir Barton (1919); Gallant Fox (1930); Omaha (1935); War Admiral (1937); Whirlaway (1941); Count Fleet (1943); Assault (1946); Citation (1948); Secretariat (1973); Seattle Slew (1977); Affirmed (1978); American Pharoah (2015); or Justify (2018) — was the greatest of all time.
Can you bet on virtual Kentucky Derby?
There won’t be betting on the “Triple Crown Showdown” between the only horses to win the Derby, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. But Churchill Downs is encouraging fans to visit KentuckyDerby.com starting Thursday to back a horse to win and make a charitable donation to COVID-19 emergency relief efforts, which it will match.
NBC also will televise various Derby Day themed activities (I’m guessing there will be a hats segment) leading up to the race from 3 to 6 p.m. EDT on Saturday. It may sound silly, but the virtual Grand National broadcast drew 4.8 million viewers.
And how will the history-making battle royal be decided?
The final arbiter of greatness will be a company called Inspired Entertainment, which will use “data algorithms, including historical handicapping information about each horse, which helps to determine the probability of their potential finishing positions,” according to a Churchill Downs news release announcing the event.
As for handicapping the race, it’s all but impossible to compare horses across so many generations, as racing has changed dramatically over the years as far as how often horses are raced, how far they run and how long they are campaigned. Racing surfaces also have been improved, producing progressively faster times before finally flattening out in recent years.
But I expect most of the “action” in this contest will be on Secretariat, whose winning effort in the 1973 Derby set a track record of 1:59 2/5 for 1 ¼ miles that still stands. Those of us who can saw him will never forget those powerful strides and gleaming chestnut coat.
That said, if I was making a charitable donation and hoping to win a VIP Derby package, I would probably look elsewhere.
Depending on how Inspired Entertainment set up its algorithm, the results could be topsy-turvy. Remember that 18-1 long shot who won the virtual Grand National? That race also was produced by Inspired Entertainment.