April 30 (Reuters) - Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, said on Thursday it will open for spectator-free racing on May 16 under strict guidelines to mitigate risks from the COVID-19 pandemic and hopes to have fans in attendance for its famous race in September.
After the opening weekend, spectator-free racing at the Louisville racetrack will be held Thursdays through Sundays with a special card for the Memorial Day holiday on May 25.
The decision on the opening day of the 2020 Spring Meet was announced a day after Churchill Downs received state approval to reopen its stables on May 11.
Only authorized racetrack employees and Kentucky Horse Racing Commission license holders who are providing support for a horse stabled at the facility will be permitted on property.
Churchill Downs' stable areas have been closed since Dec. 31 for annual winter renovations and were originally scheduled to reopen March 17.
The racetrack was supposed to stage the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of U.S. thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown, on Saturday but the event was moved to Sept. 5 because of the novel coronavirus.
Churchill Downs Chief Executive Officer Bill Carstanjen, speaking on a teleconference with investors and analysts earlier on Thursday, said he is hopeful restrictions will have relaxed enough to allow fans to attend the Kentucky Derby.
Carstanjen said while it may not look the same as a traditional Kentucky Derby, they will do everything in their power to make fan attendance possible.
"There's still going to be social distancing issues," said Carstanjen. "Whatever's capable of being done in this country in four months, whatever can be done, whatever is the maximum acceptable processes and protocols, that's where we'll be.
"That's what we'll be offering and that's what we'll do. So I'm fairly optimistic. I'm more than cautiously optimistic. I am optimistic that we'll find a way through this." (Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)