Over a century ago, the Spanish Flu was taking lives by the millions and casualties from World War I were adding to the heartbreak.  Yet the then-major sport of horse racing was able to carry on and offer a needed diversion in a time of so much human carnage and sadness.

The Center for Disease Control states that the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, erroneously known as the Spanish Flu, was the worst in modern history in terms of the number of people infected and the resulting death toll.  The CDC says that the flu was initially identified in the United States among military personnel in the spring of 1918.  It spread during 1918-1919 (World War I formally ended on June 28, 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, although Germany had agreed to stop fighting on November 11, 1918).  Autumn of 1918 was the height of the flu’s devastation.  It is estimated that, before it ran its course, the virus infected 500 million people, or about a third of the world’s population.  This resulted in some 50 million deaths worldwide, including 675,000 in the United States.

In the midst of World War and the virulent influenza pandemic, horse racing in the United States was largely business as usual.  On May 11, 1918, the great gelding Exterminator won the Kentucky Derby.  A contemporaneous report of the festivities said that “Throughout Kentucky Derby Day in 1918, school children started a ‘swat-the-fly’ campaign,” evidently in an effort to curtail contagion from the dreaded flu.  The Triple Crown went off as planned in 1918 as did the remainder of the racing scheduled. 

Racing in Great Britain needed some accommodation, but because of the war rather than the flu.  The Epsom Derby, for example, was moved to Newmarket for the fourth consecutive year.

In the second and last year of the pandemic, 1919, the racing calendar again went ahead as planned despite the influenza that was killing so many victims.  In fact, 1919 proved to be historically significant for American horse racing, for two reasons. 

First, arguably the greatest racehorse ever, Man o’ War, arrived on the racing scene as a 2-year-old and ran in ten races, with the only loss of his storied career coming at the hands of the fatefully named Upset in the Sanford Memorial at Saratoga in August. 

Second, Sir Barton swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont.  In the 1930s, these classic races would be labeled the Triple Crown and Sir Barton would be recognized as the first winner of the series.

Fast forward 100-plus years to the present.  In spite of the ominous coronavirus pandemic of 2020, self-quarantined racing fans are able to watch and bet on horse races from remote and sanitized environments while most other sports are idle.

In the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, the horse racing enterprise “kept calm and carried on” in the manner of its British roots.  The same can be said today, thanks to television, the internet, and races run without on-track customers.

Horse racing insiders and fans of long ago and today give credence to the adage “Where there is a will, there is a way.”

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