In March, horse racing tracks across America went silent. A few continued to race but banned spectators. By April, barely a handful of those tracks were still running races at all. The coronavirus pandemic took America – and the world – by storm, and all non-essential businesses were ordered closed to prevent COVID-19 from infecting and killing more people.
March and April were two of the roughest months for racetracks across the US. And as May began, most states were not ready to allow action at the tracks to resume.
However, some states are beginning to consider their options. And the tracks are ready for racing in just about any capacity.
Pennsylvania Anxiously Awaits
Equine industry members are so anxious to get the horses running again that they launched a website called “Let ‘Em Run Now.” And the group’s mission is simple:
“Our mission is to save thousands of jobs within the horse racing industry and to ensure for the care of thousands of horses during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Further, the website goes on to say that the horse racing industry in Pennsylvania is “on the verge of collapse” due to the pandemic and Governor Tom Wolf’s shelter-in-place policies. With 23,000 jobs and 17,000 horses on the line, racing pays workers and pays for the care of the horses.
Supporters of “Let ‘Em Run Now” asks Pennsylvania to join other states that allow racing without spectators. They point to guidelines from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association that are working for other states and could work for Pennsylvania.
Currently, Wolf’s reopening plan for the state is into the yellow phase, one that includes certain counties that no longer must adhere to stay-at-home orders. There is nothing in the yellow phase regarding racetracks, though, or if they will be included in the next phase.
This week, the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission formally asked the governor to reopen tracks for racing as he has done for marinas and golf courses. Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding sent a letter to Wolf on the commission’s behalf.
The letter states that live racing stopped on March 16 per state orders. At that point, the tracks quickly implemented new systems and protocols “designed with the safety of all persons and horses on the backside in mind.” Redding notes that those processes are still in place with a positive result. “To date, there have been no reported COVID-19 positives at those facilities.”
Wolf has yet to respond to either organization.
California Plans for Mid-May Racing
Santa Anita has been at the forefront of pushing for tracks to reopen for racing in California. Last week, some signs pointed to that push actually working.
The Stronach Group Executive Director of California Racing Operations Aidan Butler told several organizations that tracks will reopen on May 15 for racing without spectators. Butler sent a letter to the Thoroughbred Owners of California, California Thoroughbred Trainers, and the Jockey Guild to let them know they may begin preparations.
This date was chosen because it coincides with the Los Angeles County stay-at-home order, though there is no official word from local or state authorities as to whether that date will remain in place and if it will pertain to racetracks.
Golden Gate Fields, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, did receive its approval from public health officials in Alameda County to resume live racing on May 14. It had been running without spectators until April 2, and that caveat will stay in place for the reopening.
Those officials are working with Golden Gate to finalize safety protocols. Butler expressed his appreciation for this opening and noted that The Stronach Group is grateful for the chance to continue live racing in Northern California.
Santa Anita hopes to receive a similar approval.
Kentucky Prepares for Spring Meet
It is no secret that the equine industry and horse racing in particular are staples of the Kentucky economy. Racetracks took the lockdown very seriously, even going so far as to reschedule the Kentucky Derby, but tracks and others in the industry have been pushing Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear to allow spectator-less racing to start in May.
Beshear gave that permission as May got underway. It was a result of Churchill Downs entering into negotiations with Beshear after sending a detailed proposal about safety protocols. The track was prepared to implement significant changes in order to keep employees and jockeys safe. Beshear agreed that Churchill Downs may begin accepting horses to its stable on May 11.
Beshear also noted that Churchill Downs’ plans were the “most detailed” he had seen regarding security checks, temperature checks, and masking. The number of people allowed at the track will also be limited.
The 2020 Spring Meet at the track will open on Saturday, May 16 without fans for the foreseeable future.
Other States with Reopen Dates
The Indiana Horse Racing Commission announced a schedule for the reopening of the two Indiana racetracks: Harrah’s Hoosier Park and Indiana Grand. On May 11, horses already in the state will begin to move to the backside. Out-of-state horses may come in on May 24. Spectator-free parimutuel racing will begin on June 14, and they hope to bring in fans by July 4.
West Virginia is on a fast track to reopening its state’s activities. During his last press briefing in April, Governor Jim Justice mentioned that horse racing in the Northern and Eastern panhandles of the state was approved to restart on May 14. There will be no spectators at first, of course. Charles Town Races looks to hit that date, while Mountaineer Park may open closer to May 31, when its meet is scheduled to begin.
New York, Maryland, Texas, and New Jersey are the next states likely to allow horse racing tracks to preparing for reopenings, but track operators currently await official word to set their dates.