Shut Down by the Spanish Flu

The dark, dank trenches of France behind him, imagine your doughboy stepping off a ship onto American soil. For the first time in many months, he is back in his own country, but he can’t come home to you just yet. Instead, he reports to his unit’s headquarters and finds himself surrounded by frantic doctors and nurses trying to squelch an epidemic.

In the late fall of 1918, as the Great War was winding down and American soldiers were boarding ships back to the United States, they brought with them an unwelcome gift: a new and more virulent strain of the Spanish flu. The previous spring had seen an outbreak of the same flu, but the intervening months had mutated the virus into something more deadly, striking the young and healthy as it spread among soldiers and then civilians so quickly that it overwhelmed cities.

In 1918, the horse racing world was much smaller than it is today. By the fall, events like the Kentucky Derby and Saratoga’s late summer meet had already come and gone, but meets at Latonia in northern Kentucky and Laurel in Maryland were at the mercy of measures that governments had to take to stem the tide of this deadly epidemic.

No, No, You Can’t Go

By early October, newspapers were awash in reports about the outbreak of this new strain of the flu, detailing the rise in cases as well as the measures being taken to treat those stricken. Wartime policies had prevented the spread of information about the virus’s movements until it was too late in some areas. The city of Philadelphia had gone ahead with a parade celebrating Liberty Bonds, which the government had sold to help fund the war effort. Days later, a spike in reported flu cases were a direct result of that decision.

That realization led local authorities in both Maryland and Kentucky to limit public gatherings in that crucial first part of October. That meant that both Laurel and Latonia would have to wait. This delayed a number of stakes races, including the match race between two-year-olds Billy Kelly and Eternal that was to decide the best juvenile of the year. The Daily Racing Form updated readers on the latest regarding each meet, optimistically reporting each time the ban might be lifted.

Sound Familiar?

Finally, the bans were lifted in late October, allowing each meet to go forward. Both were delayed by two or three weeks, but racing resumed nevertheless and quickly returned to normal. The Spanish flu would linger for another six months, with another outbreak in the spring of 1919. By that point, the virus had again evolved to a less serious version, marking the end of a nightmarish epidemic in the United States. No corner of the country had been untouched by the Spanish flu: even President Woodrow Wilson endured his own case as he prepared to sign the Treaty of Versailles.

Our ability to diagnose viral infections and understand how they spread is years from where it was a century ago. This knowledge means that we know what we need to do to deal with an epidemic like the COVID-19, including something unprecedented for most of us: the cancellation or postponement of our favorite sports. While we wait for the First Saturday in September and mourn the loss of familiar joys, let us remember that racing eventually returned to normal in 1918 and that will happen again in 2020.

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