As Christmas Day approached, things were looking very positive at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans. The track was showing significant increases year over year in handle and field sizes averaged around nine per race, up a horse per race from a year earlier.
Then, the call came in that a horse in Barn 14 tested positive for the equine herpesvirus. The strain of the disease, EHV-1, is highly contagious and can prove fatal. Louisiana's Department of Agriculture installed a quarantine on Barn 14, and since then, six other horses have tested positive for EHV-1, some of them to a different strain that doesn't target the nervous system, and three more barns have been quarantined. The track also imposed a ban on shipping in or out.
“We were feeling good about ourselves, and then all of the sudden, this bombshell hits us, and you just get back to reality and face it and deal with it,” said Jason Boulet, Fair Grounds' senior director of racing.
Boulet hasn't crunched the numbers in the new year, but the anectodal evidence suggests the shipping ban is having a serious impact on field sizes and most likely handle. Primarily stewards' scratches, presumably the result of horses not shipping in, led to a three-horse field on Saturday and a two-horse race on Sunday.
“We average about 15 to 20 ship-ins per day for our racing program, so we depend on those horses to make our field sizes what they are,” said Boulet. “When you shut that down, it pretty much brings down the starters per race by one or two horses.”
Soggy turf course conditions over the weekend didn't help matters. Off-the-turf races led to even more scratches.
The racing product is struggling across the state at Delta Downs, too. Despite not having any EHV-1 positives, Delta Downs also imposed a ban on shipping. For Saturday's nine-race card, 42 of 92 entries were scratched by stewards. The third race saw a maiden special weight field whittled from 10 down to two. The numbers make sense. About half of any given card at Delta Downs might be comprised of shippers, according to Louisiana Racing Commission Executive Director Charlie Gardiner. It appears the rumor mill is churning, and the backside is buzzing with concern about EHV-1.
“Our racing is suffering right now and except for Fair Grounds, which is an unusual situation, I don't think the same restrictions are warranted at Delta,” said Gardiner. “Sometimes, the worst part of the virus is the paranoia and fear that it strikes in others. A lot of times the fear is greater than the actual facts.”
At the same time, Gardiner said, “we want the tracks to have the autonomy to do what they think is in their best interests.”
Delta announced Monday that it would extend its quarantine on shipping until Jan. 16 and issued the following statement: “We still have not any reports of EHV-1 at Delta Downs, but are extending the quarantine out of an abundance of caution, in order to avoid the further spread of EHV-1 at our state's racetracks. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause to owners and trainers, and appreciate their understanding and support.”
“I can't blame them; they're trying to do the right thing,” said Boulet, “but they have hurt a lot of the horsemen in the in-between spots, the training centers and farms (by not allowing ship-ins).”
Boulet said Fair Grounds is doing everything it can to get the situation resolved sooner than later. Track owner Churchill Downs Inc. has invited equine infectious disease expert Dr. Nathan Slovis from Kentucky's Hagyard Equine Medical Institute to visit Fair Grounds Tuesday and meet with state officials. There will also be a question and answer session with horsemen.
Friday will mark the end of the 14-day quarantine period for Barn 14, where the first positive test occurred. The quarantine won't be lifted automatically; the state still must officially approve an exit plan, but both Boulet and Gardiner are confident the track is turning the corner.
“When we get past this week, and we start to release some of these quarantines that are happening at Fair Grounds, and I'm confident that's going to happen soon, we'll get back to normal,” said Gardiner.
“If we can through this one process and the state lets us out,” echoed Boulet, “then we can try to get out of this thing as quickly as possible.”
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