The vast majority of horse racing tracks across America have been closed for more than a month. Most received their shutdown orders in the middle of March via governors of individual states who determined – along with health officials – that tracks were not essential businesses. By nature, racetracks aren’t exactly a model for social distancing.
Little more than a handful of tracks continued racing without fans. Places like Oaklawn, Remington, Gulfstream, and Los Alamitos remain open for racing only. Fonner Park also continues to race, breaking handle records by leaps and bounds.
As some states begin to discuss ways to reopen some businesses and take baby steps toward resuming life as people knew it before the coronavirus pandemic, race tracks want in on that action. Most have been shuttered since mid-March. They have watched tracks operate without fans and want to do it. And they are beginning to make their voices heard.
Kentucky: Legislative Push
The equine industry is the heart and soul of Kentucky. The past month without racing, even pushing the Kentucky Derby to September, has been an unprecedented and detrimental hit to the entire state’s economy.
As of April 3, Governor Andy Beshear said the state was not ready. He said it could be months, as the virus and its spread will dictate the timeline for reopening race tracks.
However, Kentucky Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer is pushing for a quicker opening. He told the Courier-Journal last week, “We’ve got to get horse racing going again soon. Why are other states managing to race without spectators but Kentucky cannot?”
Thayer wants Kentucky tracks to follow the safety protocols undertaken by Gulfstream, Oaklawn, and other tracks running without fans. Every day that racing doesn’t occur contributes to the trickle-down damage flowing through the industry.
He told the Thoroughbred Daily News that the impact of the shutdowns has been “staggering and potentially cataclysmic.” He continued, “Everything is driven by purse money. If we can’t start getting the purse money back into the hands of owners and trainers and their employees, it’s going to have a long-term effect that gets worse with each day we go without racing.”
Pennsylvania: Groups Push
The Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission is ready for Pennsylvania’s racing industry to move toward a restart. Specifically, PHRC member John Egloff wants a discussion about this to begin soon.
Egloff told Play Pennsylvania recently, “I think they should try and open racing on a limited basis without people in the stands.” He cited other tracks around the country that have been successfully following that model throughout March and April.
Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association President Sal DeBunda said on a recent video interview that he doesn’t know when tracks might be able to open. However, “I have a goal in mind of probably June 1 of this year, but I have no indication that that’s necessarily going to happen.”
DeBunda said the decision is in the hands of Governor Tom Wolf, as he dictates the categorization of businesses as essential and non-essential. Since casinos and horse tracks – inherently tied together in Pennsylvania – must open together, this could delay any type of opening, even one without fans.
California: TSG Push
The Stronach Group owns racetracks from Maryland to California. Its Gulfstream Park is one of the few tracks still running, albeit without fans, through the pandemic shutdowns. It now wants Santa Anita Park in the Los Angeles area to do the same.
President Belinda Stronach penned an open letter to petition for the reopening of Santa Anita. She noted that the track voluntarily closed to the public on March 12 – before California issued mandatory orders – but continued racing without spectators. But on March 27, the Los Angeles County Health Department stopped that, too.
Stronach noted that the backstretch employees are the backbone of the racing industry. With their protection at the forefront of new policies, she wrote, “Santa Anita Park is asking that this (closure) order be reconsidered and the suspension of live racing lifted.”
Tracks Ready Across America
At horse tracks across the country, executives are speaking to the media and anyone who will listen to say they’re prepared to open – in any capacity, at any time.
Emerald Downs President Phil Ziegler indicated that more than 500 horses are currently in training. Racing could start fairly quickly, with or without fans. Most employees are furloughed and prepared to return.
The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club scheduled its first race for Saturday, July 18. CEO Jon Harper said the track will be ready.
Fairmount Park in Illinois formally requested permission from Governor J.B. Pritzker to reopen without spectators. The Illinois Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association said online wagering will help bring in the numbers needed to keep operating.
Most of the decisions remain in the hands of state governments. But the tracks are letting them know that they are ready and willing to reopen for business.