This time of year, tents are always part of the landscape at Pimlico Race Course and signal the coming of Preakness Day with its thousands of spectators, world-class horses, celebrities, big racing names, millions in wagering handle and massive economic impact.
In 2020, tents signal something else entirely as the track’s parking lot was converted to a drive-through coronavirus testing facility in mid-April after the Preakness was postponed indefinitely, racing stopped in the state (and much of the nation) and the world adjusted to stay-at-home orders during a global pandemic. Through April 15, more than 28,000 people in the United States had died of COVID-19 (the disease caused by the virus) and more than 630,000 had tested positive. The worldwide totals topped 131,000 deaths and more than two million cases.
Health experts expected all numbers to climb before a much-hoped-for leveling off and eventual decline due to social distancing, advanced testing capabilities and medical protocols.
The impact of the virus went far beyond Thoroughbred racing, but the sport took hits in both the short and long term. Racing continued in pockets of the country – Florida, Arkansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma were live in April – but the virus outbreak forced the closing of all tracks in the Mid-Atlantic and beyond. No regional state hosted racing after March 21, and there were no firm plans to resume. New York ceased then as well. Churchill Downs moved the Kentucky Derby to September while the Preakness and Belmont Stakes looked for answers, and new dates that made sense. The National Steeplechase Association’s spring calendar was in shambles, pushed to three meets in June from 15 in March, April and May. In Kentucky, Keeneland’s spring meet didn’t happen, and neither did its spring 2-year-old sale. Fasig-Tipton canceled sales in Florida and California and moved its May 2-year-old sale in Maryland to late June. The Dubai World Cup was canceled. Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano contracted the virus. So did New Jersey-based trainer Jorge Duarte and bloodstock agent Brad Weisbord.
The virus, which began in China but in short order spread around the globe, shut down casinos, sports betting and off-track wagering sites, which fuel purses in every Mid-Atlantic racing state.
Outside of racing, the NCAA tournament was canceled, the NBA and NHL seasons put on hold. Millions began working from home. Schools and colleges closed basically nationwide. Workers were furloughed across every business sector including racetracks and casinos. Businesses of all types closed. Restaurants tried to exist on takeout and delivery orders. Breweries and distilleries converted to manufacturing hand sanitizer. The stock market crashed.
Unemployment claims soared. Federal and state governments announced business-assistance programs, which were quickly flooded with applications. Non-essential travel decreased to almost zero. People were told to wear facemasks in public.
Meanwhile, Thoroughbreds ate, slept, drank and trained at racetracks, training centers and farms. The breeding industry, in the midst of foaling season, carried on with deliveries and matings. And horse people of all descriptions made decisions and looked ahead while also preparing for the worst.
Someday, racing would return, the sales would happen again, a vaccine or widespread testing would minimize the health risks for people. But everything, it seemed, was in doubt.
“Horse people are resilient, everybody’s lived through tough times and loves it, that’s why they do it. But for how long?” said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. “Is that something that can live through this crisis? I think it can. It’s a rhetorical question, but what does it look like on the other side? You look down the line and see the effects from breeders, owners, trainers, sales companies, pinhookers . . . it’s not like one thing can save it. It’s still going to take time for it all to recover.”
Never was the phrase, “Everything is connected,” so meaningful because a virus dismissed by some as no worse than a seasonal flu or as something other countries had to worry about jumped itself into mainstream discussion about every business and industry in the world.
“It’s the complete unknown right now, complete,” said TK Kuegler, a venture capitalist whose Wasabi Ventures stable races and breeds horses in the Mid-Atlantic and beyond. “Nobody understands it. No one knows what they’re doing. You can’t plan because you don’t know what anything is going to look like.”
A downturn was easy to predict. How much and in what form, not so simple. Would there be buyers for horses at auction? Would owners continue to pay bills? Could purse accounts and state breeders’ funds weather the storm of no casino revenue? Could trainers continue to make payroll? What would happen if the virus spread through a racetrack backside? New York’s Belmont Park had 25 confirmed cases, and one death (groom Martin Zapata from the Tom Morley stable) in early April.
The questions set racing in motion, in all directions.
Kuegler’s Wasabi stable sent some horses to Oaklawn Park in 2019, and followed suit this year only to expand on that idea once the virus threatened racing in the Mid-Atlantic. In April, the stable’s Trapped N My Mind, a Maryland-based 4-year-old filly, finished third in a maiden race behind horses trained by Californians Bob Baffert and Peter Miller.
“She probably would have won in Maryland,” said Kuegler, “but the people in California are thinking the same way we are.”
As for Wasabi horses in Maryland, many were taken out of training.
“We kept five or six in training, mostly turf horses who you’ve got to assume are going to have somewhere to run at some point and need to get going,” he said. “The dirt horses I shipped to the farm, cut the day rate by 60 percent and I hope that it’s only 60 days and we can bring them back and they haven’t lost too much conditioning.”
Trainer Kieron Magee also followed that strategy, turning out 38 horses from his string based at Pimlico and opting to wait on the sidelines while the racing schedule reset itself.
“Kieron had a great winter and he made the perfect call for his horses,” said Ann Merryman, another Pimlico-based trainer. “For us, we didn’t have that many running and we have mostly turf horses and 2-year-olds who were going to be training now anyway.”
Of course, reality presented those newcomers with a unique challenge – those tents that had nothing to do with the Preakness. Green, surrounded by concrete barriers and fed by a meandering path of traffic cones, they represented something bigger than racing even if they were mostly quiet in April.
“I don’t know if anything much is happening with the testing yet,” said Merryman in mid-April, “but you have had to be careful the 2-year-olds don’t see it when they’re galloping.”
While some owners and trainers opted to cut costs and give horses time off, others stayed the course – hoping for a return to racing in whatever form state and federal authorities (and economic realities) will permit. Neither course is guaranteed – not in the face of a highly contagious virus with no vaccine.
“People are looking around and trying to figure out a plan,” said Kuegler. “Like everybody else we’re trying to stay on the path, but the path is constantly shifting and we don’t even know if we’re on the path. We’re on a path, or what we think is a path, but it might not be the path.”
For now, the path for racing – and the world – weaved its way through social distancing, working from home and trying to stay healthy.
Where it led, nobody knew.