How to Run a Race During Global Disruptions

Over the course of the past few months, the pandemic has greatly altered almost every facet of our lives. From small changes in daily behavior to huge shifts in the nature of the workplace and school, few things have been left untouched – including events in the equestrian world. As part of my internship at the NSLM, I am currently conducting research on the specific impacts of COVID-19 on the equestrian and sporting communities in Middleburg, Virginia. Through my experience as a horse owner, a polo player, and an employee at a local tack shop, I have seen first-hand the unique ways in which the pandemic has affected our sport and many of its most time-honored traditions. My work is still in progress, but I am looking forward to sharing some of my findings in the near future.

For this post, however, I wanted to broaden the scope and take a look at how COVID-19 has impacted what is perhaps the nation’s most well-known equestrian event – the Run for the Roses. In doing so, I also stumbled into history and discovered how they still found a way to revel in the celebrated May event during World War 2. Oddly enough, it involves turtles.

A 145-year-old tradition, the Kentucky Derby has been held continuously since it was founded in 1875. This year will be no different, although the race has been postponed from its usual spot on the first weekend of May and rescheduled for the 5th of September.

Tiz The Law – The 2020 Kentucky Derby Favorite from
Horse Racing Nation

This change in the calendar produced unique issues for the event. The point system for evaluating Derby hopefuls had to be modified, with more qualifying races being added over the course of the summer. This allowed additional horses a chance to prove themselves worthy contestants well beyond the traditional cutoff. Additionally, trainers pointed out that horses would have been in their peak fitness condition by May and would need to take some time off before September to avoid injury and burnout. It is hard to stay in that physical condition for a long period of time, so training and racing schedules had to be adjusted (1).

Cancelling the event would cause a stir for many reasons. One is that only 3-year-old horses are allowed to participate in the race. If the event is called off, all the horses that were eligible to compete that year lose their one and only chance of winning. While the Derby has never been cancelled outright, a postponement is not unprecedented.

In 1945, Jimmy Byrnes, the Director of the War Mobilization Office, banned horse racing nationwide due to World War 2. He viewed it as a waste of national resources as it expended valuable gas and rubber to transport horses to and from the track. Furthermore, Byrnes did not want able-bodied men who could be serving in the military wasting their time working at the track or gambling (1).

People around the country were bitterly disappointed by the ban. So, in lieu of the Derby, a creative (if rather ridiculous) alternative was devised. A group of sports reporters and a representative from the Forty and Eight Legion were brainstorming ways to raise money for the Sports for Polio fund and came up with the Kentucky Turtle Derby (2).

News Article Detailing the first Kentucky Turtle Derby – Courier Journal

Attended by 6,500 spectators, the event was hosted at the Jefferson County Armory on May 5th. The turtles were given a chance to show off their stamina in eight 20-foot races over the course of the evening, and the races were called by professional sportscasters. The turtle that received the rose garland that night was Broken Spring – he completed the distance in an astounding one minute and 20 seconds! Perhaps the most exciting victory came when Journeyman Printer defeated his opponents in four minutes and 59 seconds after five of the seven turtles that previously held the lead turned back towards the starting gate. All the proceeds from the race (including some of the $11,483 placed in bets) went to children’s charities. (2)

Following the German surrender on May 7th, the actual Derby was quickly rescheduled for June 9th. Despite being a mere month after the end of the war, the wagers placed broke previous records and came in at a whopping $2,380,796. Hoop Jr. ridden by Eddie Arcaro took home the win (1).

A shot from the 1945 Derby – Twinspires

The inaugural Turtle Kentucky Derby (or Kenturtle Derby) was its only shining moment. Or was it? This year, due to the horse Derby’s postponement, the Turtle Derby was revived in all its glory! The race was held on May 2nd, and participants included Seattle Slow, Sir-Hides-A-Bunch, and Galapa-GO. The contestant What the Turtleneck? eventually emerged victorious – although two of the turtles never even made it out of the starting gate. Over the course of the race, the turtles reached astounding speeds of 0.25 miles per hour (3).

A shot from the 2020 Kentucky Turtle Derby – WDRB

While the pandemic has led to disappointment in the world of sports, the Kentucky Turtle Derby shows us a creative attempt at bringing joy to spectators while paying homage to a time-honored sporting contest. Over the next few weeks, I look forward to continuing to research and document how the pandemic has changed events, practices, and traditions in our local sporting and equestrian communities – including innovations like the one in this post. If you would like to participate in my project by giving a testimony about your experiences, please do not hesitate to reach out. Especially if it involves turtles!


Victoria Peace is the summer 2020 Curatorial Intern at the National Sporting Library and Museum. A rising junior at Georgetown University, she is double majoring in Art History and French. Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with her OTTB Taco, trail riding, and playing polo. Email her at

One thought on “How to Run a Race During Global Disruptions

  1. A fun read and a reminder of the several equine turtles I have owned. Fun, not fast, was their modus operandi. Had it been the other way around, they would never have found their way to me, a blessing (for me,) I guess. Thanks for the memories. Stay the course. I’ll be tuning in on September 5 for the 2020 KY Derby.

    Liked by 1 person

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