LEXINGTON, Ky. — For just the second time in nearly 150 years, there was no Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. The 146th Run for the Roses has been postponed until Sept. 5 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But horse racing enthusiasts were still treated to some exciting competition on the Churchill Downs main track — albeit in the form of a simulation that might seem more familiar to fans of “The Matrix” film franchise.
Secretariat stormed down the stretch to win the “Triple Crown Showdown” by a head over Citation on Saturday in the culmination of a three-hour NBC broadcast aimed at celebrating the history and pageantry of the Kentucky Derby.
The race was a computer-simulated matchup of the 13 Triple Crown winners. To pull it off, officials from Churchill Downs worked with tech company Inspired Entertainment. Computer graphics were used to create simulated versions of the race track and grandstand along with fans, and the 13 Triple Crown-winning Thoroughbreds.
Information from the past performances of the horses and analysis from racing experts were among the criteria used to create algorithms which assigned each competitor a “fundamental probability” — the overall chance each horse had to win the race and their likely finishing position.
Veteran oddsmaker Mike Battaglia assigned morning-line odds to each horse using his own research, with no inside information about the algorithms used to create the race. He installed Secretariat, whose record-breaking time of 1:59 2/5 in the 1973 Kentucky Derby still stands, as the 7-2 favorite.
Moments before the race, analyst Randy Moss said on the broadcast, “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 gonna come from me.”
No objection necessary. Secretariat settled near the back of the front-runners early as Seattle Slew jumped out to the lead and moved to the rail. Seattle Slew led most of the way and finished third after being overtaken late by Secretariat and Citation. Affirmed finished fourth, followed by American Pharoah.
Veteran announcer Larry Collmus called the race for NBC — the real-life Larry Collmus, not a virtual version.
The simulation converted at least one horse racing novice into a new fan. Before the Triple Crown Showdown, University of Kentucky softball coach Rachel Lawson wrote on Twitter that she’d never seen the Kentucky Derby live or in-person.
After the race, Lawson tweeted, “I have not rooted so hard for something fake since I used to move the furniture from my parents living room and practiced my wrestling moves as I watched WWF #SecretariatRocks.”
No word on whether or not Lawson was a fan of the infamous “Four Horsemen” wrestling stable.
NBC’s three-hour broadcast included archival footage from Churchill Downs, segments profiling horse racing fans and interviews with industry personalities such as five-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert and two-time Derby-winning jockey Mike Smith. The simulated race was preceded by a replay of the 2015 Kentucky Derby, which launched the Triple Crown run of American Pharoah.
The only other time in the nearly 150-year history of the Kentucky Derby in which is was not run on the first Saturday in May was 1945, when it was delayed by just over a month because of World War II.