Because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Thoroughbred racing remains on hold in three of the most important circuits in the United States, and despite discussions between track and government officials there is no agreement for a start-up date to resume the sport – even without spectactors on-site – in California, Kentucky or New York.
On Saturday, during his daily televised coronavirus updates, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear would not commit to a date for the sport to resume. Racing at Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky was halted by the governor's office on March 25 and the Keeneland Association had already voluntarily postponed its April meeting in Lexington. Churchill Downs in Louisville announced the Kentucky Derby would be postponed from May 2 to Sept. 5 and has twice delayed the opening of its stable area, the latest announcement putting May 5 as the earliest date for horses to ship in. The meet was scheduled to open on April 25.
Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, where many Kentucky horsemen are currently stabled, closes on May 2. Other Kentucky horsemen remain in Florida, where Gulfstream Park continues to race, or at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, which closed its meet on March 21.
“I talked with Churchill right before we started this press conference,” Beshear said on Saturday. “We are going back and forth. Obviously, we are at the height – somewhere in the plateau – of this pandemic. But they have offered some really detailed proposals and we are trying to figure out the how and the when that it will be safe (to race). And everybody, the racing industry and public health, want to make sure that it's done safely and correctly.”
Officials with The Stronach Group, owners of Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields in California, have similarly put forth a proposal for safety protocols that would take the most extreme step of any North American track by requiring that jockeys and other personnel considered “essential” reside on track in temporary housing.
The Los Angeles County Department of Health, in consultation with Kathryn Barger, chair of the LA County Board of Supervisors, ordered Santa Anita in Arcadia to cease racing on March 27, two weeks after Santa Anita voluntarily began running spectator free without incident.
Aidan Butler, the executive director of California Racing Operations for The Stronach Group, along with Belinda Stronach met via teleconference with Barger and Health Department officials on April 16 and submitted their proposal that same day but have yet to get a definitive response.
Butler, appearing on the Thoroughbred Los Angeles radio show hosted by Santa Anita publicist Mike Willman, said on Sunday he received a note on April 24 from LA County officials that the proposal was being reviewed over the April 25-26 weekend.
“We should expect a response shortly,” said Butler. “I'm thinking early this week, Monday or Tuesday. we should get some sort of a response.
“It's been very well thought out, not just from a racing standpoint but really from a scientific standpoint,” Butler said of the proposal. “We took advice from some very smart people with regards to infectious disease and how you stop the spread of it. I'm hoping what comes back is positive, and if it's not immediately positive that it's only a couple of tweaks to allow us to get going again.”
The Santa Anita meet is scheduled to run through June 21. Butler said it would probably take at least a week to resume racing once getting the green light from officials.
“There's no rational reason why we shouldn't be racing,” Butler said. “Not just here but obviously at Golden Gate Fields also.”
The Alameda County Department of Health ordered Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco to suspend racing on April 2. That meet is scheduled to run through June 16. Los Alamitos race course in Orange County – which currently operates night time Quarter Horse racing – has a meeting that follows the Santa Anita season.
Despite his frustration, Butler urged patience to those who are anxious for racing to resume so that the economic engine that drives the industry can start up again.
“They are dealing with a huge amount of companies and people in distress,” Butler said of LA County officials. “Sometimes you've just got to take a breath. … All of us need to take a step back and realize the whole wide world is in trouble at the moment. As much as we don't like the answers, we've just got to be a little more patient.”
A report in Thoroughbred Daily News said officials with the New York Racing Association are waiting for a response from the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Gaming Commission to a 19-page proposal officials submitted recently.
Aqueduct racetrack in Ozone Park in Queens has been closed since March 19. New York has suffered the most of any region in the U.S., with more than 12,000 of the country's 55,000 COVID-19 deaths occurring in New York City and 16,000 in New York state.
Martin Panza, senior vice president of racing for NYRA, said the proposal seeks racing to start-up at Belmont Park on Long Island, then move up to Saratoga in upstate for the scheduled July 16 opening. Belmont's scheduled April 24 opening has been delayed indefinitely.
Even without fans on-site, Panza said, the Saratoga meet is extremely important to NYRA's bottom line and to horsemen's purses, of which 35 or 40 percent are subsidized by slots revenue from the currently shuttered casino at Aqueduct.
“Those protocols are pretty extensive,” Panza told the Thoroughbred Daily News. “If given the opportunity to race, we're going to be extremely careful. There has been a lot of thought going into how we open and how we do it in the safest possible manner.”
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