How’s your summer going? If you’re reading this, you’ve probably experienced a little bit of every-thing – success, failure, status quo, good news, bad news, darkness, bright lights, confidence, doubt . . . The list of 2020 experiences for Thoroughbred racing could go in any direction imaginable – and unimaginable.
For now, a little stability feels nice. Or it did in July. By August, when you’re reading this . . . well, who really knows? After two-plus months without racing, regional tracks came back and the mid-summer schedule looked relatively normal with racing at Charles Town, Delaware Park, Laurel Park, Monmouth Park, Parx Racing and Penn National. On the horizon, Presque Isle Downs and Colonial Downs were about to start. There were racing opportunities again.
Charles Town announced that its signature race, the Charles Town Classic-G2, would run Aug. 28. Delaware ran the Oaks-G3 and Handicap-G2 in July, the Haskell-G1 was about to happen at Monmouth Park.
Even steeplechasing somehow carded two race meets in June, saving a little something for horses and horsemen who lost 14 race meets and more than $2 million in purses due to the coronavirus pandemic. Jump racing at Saratoga and Colonial Downs would be a welcome respite before the sport’s leaders tackled the difficult question of what to do with the fall season (Aiken has already canceled its October date).
Fasig-Tipton hosted its 2-year-old sale at Timonium at the end of June, six weeks late and not without some angst, and made like Eddie Murray – hit a home run with another million-dollar juvenile and solid numbers across the board.
Regional racing fans even got a chance to cheer on some national success as Barclay Tagg and Robin Smullen won the Belmont Stakes-G1 with Tiz the Law. Tagg and Smullen are both from Pennsylvania. He used to ride steeplechasers, was a regular in Camden, S.C., won his first race as a trainer at Liberty Bell near Philadelphia, trained in Maryland for years. She galloped for Dr. John Fisher. Her family hosted horse shows at the farm outside Oxford, Pa. Tagg and Smullen took the New York/Florida track, and hit it big with Kentucky Derby-G1 and Preakness Stakes-G1 winner Funny Cide in 2003. They’ve got another good one in Tiz the Law, whose goals included Saratoga’s Travers-G1 in August, the Derby in September and the Preakness in October (yes, it’s still hard to write it that way).
Some of the best news, for me, came in reading the results. Maybe they’re easier to spot coming out of eight to 10 weeks without racing, but the early returns seemed to belong to horses from smaller stables, longshots and (described with great admiration) the little guys.
Hassan Elamri won a race at Laurel as a breeder, owner and trainer. Gordie Keys won with a homebred trained by Madison Meyers, her first win outside the steeplechase circuit. Owner/breeder Vivian Rall and trainer Ann Merryman teamed up to win a race.
Tim Woolley didn’t run a horse between Feb. 22 and June 1, stayed in business and sent Samui Sunset out for a win July 11. Woolley’s Fair Hill Training Center neighbor Lizzie Merryman, idle from mid-March until the end of May, got on the board with her homebred Caravel at Penn National in June. Carl Doran won two races in July after losing his first 23 starts in 2020.
Another Fair Hill trainer, Richard Lugo-vich, won two races at the Belmont meet with homebreds – his only two starters of 2020 through July 14.
At Parx, trainer Leslye Bouchard won her first two races of the year in June and July. Through the first four days of racing at Monmouth Park, Rory Huston, Douglas Nunn, Michael Simmonds and Frank Russo had trained as many winners (one) as Chad Brown. Nunn’s paid $149.60 to win.
At Delaware Park, Jamie Ness of course led the way with eight wins from more than double the starts of anyone else, but behind him looked like the entrance to the Fort McHenry Tunnel before E-ZPass – jumbled. Three trainers had four wins (one of those, Tim Ritchey, was undefeated); five had three wins, 13 had two. More than 100 had at least one through 12 days of racing.
Why did we see such trends? Heck, I don’t know but I’ll venture a guess – smaller-time trainers can train horses, in a pandemic, not in a pandemic, whenever. Maybe the break in the racing calendar leveled the playing field, at least for a little while. Perhaps the big stables couldn’t find their grooves without racing action, without run-backs, without claims. The waiver-claiming rules in effect on the restart at many tracks certainly helped. Maybe the smaller stables focused on the details, trained their horses without target dates and were ready when the curtains lifted. It might just be luck, but it sure was fun to watch. More owners should take note.