COVID-19 Updates Around the Racing Industry

Written By Kimberly French on May 15, 2020 - Last Updated on May 21, 2020
Race Tracks Prepare to Open After COVID-19

Fasig-Tipton announces COVID-19 protocols for Midatlantic Sale

On Monday (June 22) Fasig-Tipton announced their COVID-19 safety measures prior to the Midlantic 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale, which is the company’s first juvenile sale of the season.

In order to adhere to Maryland regulations, Fasiq-Tipton, which operates the show part of the sale on June 24-26, has instituted new guidelines for the safety of patrons, consignors, and horses traveling to the facility. The sale will be conducted June 29-30 in Timonium.

The new regulations are as follows:

  • Screening measures, including temperature checks and health screening questions, will be required to enter the sales grounds for all staff, participants and attendees
  • Cloth face coverings are mandatory to comply with U.S. CDC regulations
  • At least six feet of distance must be maintained between people at all times
  • Seating capacity in the sales pavilion will be less than 50 percent of capacity
  • No food service will be sold in the sales pavilion
  • Valet parking has been discontinued
  • Stringent cleaning and disinfection procedures will be in place with regular sanitation of high touch surfaces at least every two hours
  • Frequent hand washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is suggested

“The health and safety of sale participants is of paramount importance,” the release stated. “These guidelines are intended as a supplement to assist with safe operations during the COVID-19 pandemic and are subject to change.”

Scheduled to occur on May 21-23, the Midlantic sale was rescheduled to the week of May 26-27 in response to the coronavirus. The choice to move the sale to June was determined in April when it became obvious the state’s stay at home protocols and social distancing recommendations demanded further action.

Contract agreement allows Arlington to race

Arlington International Race Course and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (ITHA), after months of controversial negotiations, have concurred to contract terms to a shortened summer race meeting at the state’s Thoroughbred facility.

The Illinois Racing Board (IRB), after receiving the signed agreement, approved alterations in the 2020 racing dates order so Arlington can open July 23, racing three days a week until Sept. 30. The meet will be held without stakes races, meaning the track’s three Grade I events, including the Arlington Million, will be on conducted this year.

Arlington agreed to open its backstretch by July 6, pending approvals from health officials and infrastructure work.

A new wrinkle in the negotiations was created as Hawthorne Race Course and Arlington battled over which facility should be given simulcast revenue from “dark host days” which are June 19 to July 22.

Hawthorne assistant general manager John Walsh said Hawthorne has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars by keeping its backstretch open to stable nearly 200 Thoroughbreds which were moved to Arlington in April due to COVID-19 disruptions.

Walsh also said the “dark days” that were previously granted to Hawthorne supplied no income when the pandemic shut down racing and simulcasting. Therefore, the facility has millions of dollars.

“We’re not a huge corporation,” Walsh said. “We’re a 100-year-old family business.

“To start our fall meeting, we have four days of (revenue). That’s not enough to sustain a fall meeting.”

Arlington president Tony Petrillo said changing the dark days policy, “puts our meeting in jeopardy. We will have to go back and recalculate what our purses will be.”

Petrillo also said how funds are distributed is covered by a binding agreement between Hawthorne and Arlington as part of the 2020 dates order. Any alteration, he said, would “raise a whole bunch of legal issues, that would be pursued. Any reduction in dark host days would result in a reduction in purses at Arlington.”

The IRB voted 5-1 for the revenue to remain with Arlington, with commissioner Ben Reyes stating Hawthorne could compromise if they were given different dates for 2021. Commissioner Thomas McCauley, who led the contract negotiations for the board, was the sole “no” vote on giving Hawthorne the proceeds and he felt Hawthorne could be compensated at the dates hearing in September.

“I’m not going to forget the contributions Hawthorne has made,” McCauley said. “I urge my colleagues to remember as well.”

NTWAB petitions Governor Beshear for media access

The National Turf Writers and Broadcasters (NTWAB) has petitioned Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear to allow media to begin covering racing in Kentucky prior to the June 27 Stephen Foster Stakes (Grade II) at Churchill Downs.

NTWAB president Tom Law presented a letter to Beshear June 22, as publicity representatives at Churchill and Keeneland have stated to the organization the governor will not permit media to cover racing because of continued concerns over COVID-19. Although the NTWAB concedes these protocols were perfectly acceptable for a period of time, New York and other states have shown media can cover racing safely, such as the June 20 Belmont Stakes (Grade I).

With discussions between Kentucky tracks and the governor’s office to permit media onsite in limbo, and with Keeneland relaying to the board that there no plan at this time to allow media at its July meeting, NTWBA president Tom Law and members of the board felt the time is right to revisit the subject. Members of the media have not been allowed to cover live racing in Kentucky since late March. This situation includes the Churchill Downs meet, which began May 16 and will end Saturday.

“A precedent has been set, as the New York Racing Association permitted reporters to cover the Belmont Stakes, the first major sporting event in New York—and the United States, basically—since the start of the COVID-19 issue,” Law said. “While the state of Kentucky has permitted Churchill Downs to now allow owners and or owners’ representatives to come to the races, but not the media, there’s a mixed message being sent. NYRA allows the media to cover their race but the state of New York does not allow owners to go to the Belmont Stakes, while the state of Kentucky allows owners but not the news media.

“I say all of this with the very firm understanding of the issues and complications that are involved in this entire crisis. I live in New York. And I do fully acknowledge, should Governor Beshear’s Healthy at Work restrictions on the media at racetracks be lifted, that any access we have as members of the media is fully at the discretion of the racetrack as a privately owned company.

“I’m not saying the media needs to have wide-open access, but I think the media should be allowed to cover things that go on in the state of Kentucky that are very important to the state of Kentucky and the citizens of Kentucky, who have an interest in it.”

Presque Isle Downs to open July 27

With its meet postponed because of COVID-19, Presque Isle downs will start racing July 27, according to Todd Mostoller, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (PHBPA).

Presque Isle will race for 50 days, typically on Mondays through Wednesdays, with the ability for additional days, and continue through the end of October. The backstretch is set to open no later than July 8.

“We are hopeful for an earlier (backstretch) opening to facilitate horses shipping from Tampa Bay Downs,” the Pennsylvania HBPA tweeted June 23. “An earlier opening is dependent upon the hiring of security and staff in numbers that will allow opening.”

Officials had hoped racing would begin by July 20, but a seven-day delay was required for track maintenance. Presque Isle has a Tapeta surface.

Like many other tracks, Presque Isle will reduce purses for stakes. The track’s $100,000 stakes will drop to $75,000, and the track’s two most lucrative races, the Presque Isle Masters Stakes (Grade II) and Presque Isle Mile Stakes will not be held this year to maintain the overnight purse structure. The Presque Isle Masters and Presque Isle Mile were worth $400,000 and $200,000, respectively.

Presque Isle becomes the third Pennsylvania Thoroughbred track to open after Penn National Race Course began racing June 19 and Parx Racing on June 22.  Those facilities already had horses on the backside after racing ceased in March.

“Everybody is anxious to get back up and racing as soon as possible,” he said.

Presque Isle is situated in Erie County, which last week was changed from a “yellow” to “green” phase under Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 reopening plans. Now that it is in the “green” phase Presque Isle can open its casino on June 26.

Belterra to open June 4

Belterra Park will commence it’s meet on June 4 after the Ohio State Racing Commission and the Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (OHBPA) approved the request and released notice on its website.

Horses from neighboring Kentucky and Ohio are allowed to ship to the facility beginning May 30. The first day horses will be able to train over the track is June 1. That is when horses from other states will be allowed on the premises.

Racing will be on a Tuesday to Friday schedule, without fans and under strict measures due to the coronavirus. . 

“At this stage I don’t believe any of the cancelled stakes will be made up,” wrote Dave Basler, executive director of the OHBPA in a Facebook post to explain to run those stakes would decrease purse amounts for the upcoming races.

Owned by Boyd Gaming, Belterra also operates a casino, which has been closed indefinitely.

The racetrack was originally scheduled for April 24-Sept. 25.

The last racing to take place in Ohio was on March 18 at Hollywood Gamming at Mahoning Valley Race Course.

Lone Star Park to open May 22

On Tuesday (May 19) the Texas Thoroughbred Assocation tweeted the live racing would resume on Friday (May 22).

Entries were only received by phone beginning on Thursday (May 20) for the opening day card and would continue on a 48-hour entry schedule for May 23-24. The schedule for entries for the rest of the meet is TBD.

Since Sam Houston Race Park ended their meet early (March 21) due to the coronavirus there has been live racing in the state. The facility raced without spectators for the last week.

Originally scheduled to race from April 16 to July 19, Sam Houston Race Park appealed to the Texas Racing Commission to be flexible with updating dates based upon the postponement.

Finger Lakes to open on June 1

Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack revealed on Monday (May 18) that the Farmington, N.Y., facility would resume training June 1. In the near future, the track will request to begin live racing with no fans on July 13 to the New York Gaming Commission.
“It is anticipated that trainers will use the next six weeks to condition and ready their horses for the live racing season,” the release stated “In accordance with the state’s order in response to COVID-19, Finger Lakes remains temporarily closed, including for gaming, simulcast wagering, events, and dining.

“Prior to suspending operations in March, we worked to protect public health by following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on sanitizing protocols and cleaning throughout our venue. Our planning for reopening has been focused on a comprehensive program that features additional ways that we will help keep our guests and employees safe from COVID-19. We will provide more information on that program ahead of reopening as we continue to consult with local and state government officials.”

Woodbine issues plan for reopening

On Thursday (May 14) The Ontario government announced a system to gradually begin racing in phases after the COVID-19 crisis. Stage 1, which is scheduled to begin May 19, supports horse racing without spectators, with social distancing requirements.

“This is great news for the sport of horse racing and the tens of thousands of people it employs throughout the province,” said Jim Lawson, the CEO of Woodbine Entertainment. “With this news, our plans to resume Standardbred racing at Mohawk Park June 5 and Thoroughbred racing June 6 at Woodbine remain on track. We appreciate the government’s recognition that we can operate spectator-free horse racing safely by following strict physical distancing protocols.

“I would also like to thank the entire horse racing community for their patience, understanding, and commitment in following health guidelines during this time. In doing so, it has put the entire industry in the position to resume live horse racing in the coming weeks.”

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, harness racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park ended on March 19 and the beginning of Woodbine’s Thoroughbred season was scheduled to begin April 18 but that was suspended. Woodbine has implemented strict measures to protect the backstretch works and intends to increase these measures to the frontside so racing can resume.

Penn Mile Canceled; Pennsylvania racing remains on hold

Penn National Race Course announced on Thursday (May 14) it cancelled the Grade II $500,000 Penn Mile Stakes and three other stakes scheduled for this month.

Racing in Pennsylvania was suspended due to COVID-19, with Penn National last racing on March 14 and Parx Racing on March 10. Presque Isle Downs, located outside Erie, suspending its spring opening.

A tweet on May 11 from the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association said June 1 is the intended opening date for the Presque Isle Downs backstretch and June 21 for racing. Those dates, however, are not set in stone.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf wrote a letter which appeared on social media to Russell Redding, the chairman of the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission stated, “We foresee horse racing reopening when counties enter the green phase, like other entertainment (including casinos).

Restrictions have been relaxed in many Pennsylvania counties that are in the yellow phase.

The other four stakes canceled at Penn National are the Penn Oaks, Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup Stakes and 7 Forty 3 Stakes were worth $900,000 in purse money. The track stated it now will reschedule the four other stakes on that card for Pennsylvania-breds at another time.

Another group of stakes that were part of the regional MATCH series and were to be contested on June 21 at Penn National were canceled in April.

Penn Mile cards have resulted in the five largest single-day-all-source handles in Penn National’s history, including a record $3,827,158 in 2015.

Ohio Racing Commission officially approves return to racing

The Ohio State Racing Commission accepted a resolution on Thursday (May 14) for the Thoroughbred facilities Belterra Park Gaming & Entertainment Center and Thistledown to open their backstretches on May 16 and for racing to being without spectators on May 22.

Commissioners had intimated in a May 13 teleconference this resolution would be forthcoming.

Racing in Ohio was suspended in the spring due to the coronavirus. Thoroughbred racing last took place at Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course on March 18. Under the advisement of the racing commission, horses were able to stay in training until after the meet ended.

Like most racetracks around the nation, Belterra and Thistledown did not begin as scheduled in April.

The resolution states the tracks must follow a number of guidelines due to COVID-19. One of those regulations only allows essential track employees, trainers and grooms. Owners are not allowed. The regulations can be altered by racing commission officials as the situation changes.

Ohio is allowing horses to come in from other states but those horses must leave the grounds within 24 hours. The state will also allow horses to travel from Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky to Belterra in Cincinnati.

Many Ohio horsemen winter at Turfway Park and remain until the early spring. Training has been allowed at Turfway since it’s most recent meet concluded in March.

There was no indication when the tracks would officially begin their meets.

Belmont offers COVID-19 antibody testing to backstretch workers

Backstretch workers at the New York Racing Association (NYRA) are being provided with free COVID-19 antibody testing kits as NYRA is pursuing a resolution from state officials to begin racing at Belmont Park.

The statement from NYRA, the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, the Backstretch Employee Service Team, and the New York Race Track Chaplaincy on May 13 was sent to trainers tests would be offered to backstretch workers all day evening May 16 at Belmont Park. Results should be available within 48 hours.

Issued by Northwell Health, the antibody test involves a blood draw and is unlike the nasal swab test for COVID-19. If a test is positive and error-free it means the person did have COVID-19 at one time. It remains to be seen whether the antibodies provide protection against future infections.

Only people that have not exhibited symptoms for 12 days can take the test.

A negative test result means the individual has not been infected or only were infected within the last two weeks.

NYRA is pursuing for racing to be at Belmont Park by the end of this month. This requires approval from the state, which is just beginning to reopen areas in upstate New York.

Live racing at NYRA’s racing facilities was canceled on March 19 because of the coronavirus, but the Belmont backstretch has remained open for the more than 600 backstretch workers who reside there. They are responsible for caring for the more than 1,500 Thoroughbreds stabled on the property.

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Kimberly French

Kimberly French is an award winning freelance journalist specializing in horse racing and horse health living in Louisville, KY. Her work has appeared in more than 25 national and international publications. She is currently the editor of Hoof Beats magazine, the official publication of the U.S. Trotting Association and the special assistant to the president for the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

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