One Size Won’t Fit All for the Return of Sports

You can move the Kentucky Derby to September from May. But you can’t expect horses to show up at Churchill Downs without some warm-up races.

A series of prep races was announced this week for the Derby, but uncertainty over what tracks will be open and when left it spotty and tentative.

A few prep races were run in the early part of the year before the coronavirus shut down many American tracks. A few more have been held during the pandemic at tracks like Gulfstream in Florida and Oaklawn in Arkansas that pressed on without fans.

Most of the traditional prep races have been scattered throughout the calendar now, if they have been rescheduled at all. The Santa Anita Derby, the major prep in California, is now in June, rather than April. The Blue Grass in Kentucky has been postponed indefinitely but might still be run in July. Churchill Downs said it expected to add some New York races to the list later, and the Wood, the major prep there, could be one of them.

Other races that are normally held post-Triple Crown have suddenly become preps, like the Haskell at Monmouth in New Jersey. The Travers at Saratoga is also a possibility, though neither race has a date yet.

Some normally minor races, like the Matt Winn at Churchill on May 23, have gained outsize importance in the absence of many of the traditional preps by the mere fact that they are being run at all.

It is not even clear whether and when the second and third legs of the Triple Crown, the Preakness and the Belmont, will be run. Both have been postponed from their usual dates in May and June, but no new dates have been set. It is even possible that the three races will be run out of their traditional order for the first time in almost a century.

Derby prep races not only give horses warm-ups, they also winnow the potential field. Without enough preps, too few horses will be winnowed, and it will be harder to identify the 20 best to race at Churchill. This problem led to the running of two Arkansas Derbys earlier this month, so that all the contenders could enter.

It’s very unlikely we will have two Kentucky Derbys in September, but almost everything else in the Triple Crown this year seems uncertain.

Leagues hoping to return sometimes have to deal with governmental rules. That can be tricky enough, but it gets even more complicated when there are multiple governments to deal with.

The Australian Football League was working hard to get the all-clear to restart the season on June 11. But at least one state, South Australia, was causing problems with stricter rules that required arrivals to quarantine for 14 days. Still, there were high hopes that the league could get an exemption.

But on Wednesday, the state said that a plan to have Aussie rules players fly to games and leave immediately afterward was not acceptable. As a result, it seems that the two league teams in the state, Adelaide and Port Adelaide, may have to play all their games away from home.

“Modification or exemptions to S.A. quarantine requirements for A.F.L. players and staff were not outweighed by the public health risk,” Police Commissioner Grant Stevens and Chief Medical Officer Nicola Spurrier said in a statement rejecting the exemption.

A group of Adelaide players and a coach had previously been in trouble for training in groups of eight, when the league had limited training to groups of no more than two.

The struggles with different rules in different jurisdictions could be a sign of what’s to come for North American leagues, which are potentially facing varying federal rules in the United States and Canada, not to mention the possibility of dozens of rules in different states, some eager to reopen for business and others keeping strong lockdown rules.

It feels like the world of soccer is coming to life, as more leagues announced restarts this week.

Germany relaunches the Bundesliga this weekend, and a second major European league, Portugal’s Primeira Liga, will return June 4. The Czech Republic is targeting May 23, and Denmark is looking ahead to May 28.

In Central America, Nicaragua has been playing on, and now Costa Rica will relaunch on May 20. They join several Asian leagues, notably South Korea, that have already started playing. Many more leagues around the world are expected to soon follow suit.

The decisions to start playing in the spring or summer stand in contrast to two other major leagues, France and the Netherlands, which both decided to scrap their seasons entirely and declare the leaders the champions.

It is becoming clear that one size will not fit all for bringing sports back. Cultural, political and, crucially, financial factors will mean some leagues will hustle back on the field, others will wait and still others will cancel. And there always remains the dark possibility that some teams, like Tianjin of the Chinese Super League, and leagues, like the XFL, will close for good.

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