Like at other Mid-Atlantic racetracks shut down by the coronavirus outbreak, the Thoroughbreds and their caretakers at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course kept working with no clear map to the resumption of racing.
This much was known: the Preakness Stakes-G1 at Pimlico would not happen in May, for the first time since 1945. The Maryland Jockey Club postponed the second leg of the Triple Crown, with no make-up date announced by April 15, and canceled its accompanying infield fest concert. In March, Churchill Downs announced the rescheduling of the Kentucky Derby-G1 to Sept. 5 which left the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes-G1 in limbo with regard to choosing new dates. Options included following a traditional Triple Crown schedule (Preakness Sept. 19, Belmont Oct. 10), running before the Derby, canceling entirely or some other scenario as yet determined.
The Maryland Jockey Club issued a statement in early April: “The Stronach Group and the Maryland Jockey Club are continuing to work with our key stakeholders to explore all options to set a new date for the running of Preakness 145. Our first priority in these difficult times is the health and well-being of our customers, our vendors, our employees and the horses we all love. A decision will be made on a new date for Preakness 145 and will take into consideration all of the recommended best practices from local and governmental health authorities to protect our community.”
Dave O’Rourke, NYRA CEO and president, issued a statement in mid-March: “NYRA is working closely with all appropriate parties, including media rights holder NBC Sports, to make a determination about the timing of the 2020 Belmont Stakes. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend American life, decisions about large-scale public events must prioritize public health and safety above all else. NYRA will deliver an announcement only when that process has concluded to the satisfaction of state and local health departments. The Belmont Stakes is a New York institution with wide-reaching economic impact. We look forward to its 152nd edition in 2020.”
Beyond the Preakness, Maryland racing came to a halt March 15 with the state prohibiting public gatherings of more than 10 people. Laurel ran three cards without the public in early March, and had planned to continue – as racing did at a small handful of tracks in other states outside the region – until that decision.
The move put racing on hold, but did little to stop the work done by trainers and their staffs in the stable areas. Human health became an important part of the equation, however. All people entering the stable area had their temperatures checked daily, and were subjected to a weekly questionnaire based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocol. Hand sanitizing stations were placed throughout the barn area and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association distributed educational materials about preventing the spread of the virus, and educated horsemen about the impacts on their businesses. Most importantly, horse care and safety remained a priority even if a return to racing couldn’t be predicted.
“Every trainer’s different,” said Laurel-based trainer Tim Keefe, president of the MTHA, in early April. “With it changing every day, nobody knows what’s going to happen, I’m just holding steady. I backed off everything. We’re training six days a week, but not working on a regular schedule. I just kind of backed off and we’re maintaining fitness as best we can.”
That plan seemed to be the obvious choice, for now, and was similar to most trainers in the barn areas. Horses remained in light training. Others further from racing stayed at farms or had their schedules delayed. Timed workouts and trips to the starting gate (where assistant starters wore face masks) decreased, as did the numbers of 2-year-olds in some barns.
“The hard thing from a training standpoint is I had horses in that weekend we canceled that were first-time starters, and I’m sure other people did too,” said Keefe. “You have a 3-year-old ready to make the first start of his life, and now you’re left in limbo. You got him as fit as he’s ever been, prepared him for that first race, and then it didn’t happen. That’s a challenge as a trainer, that’s not an easy situation even if we know this is serious and there weren’t any other options.”
Laurel’s leading trainer Claudio Gonzalez was supposed to run rising stable star Lebda in the $200,000 Federico Tesio (which offered a spot in the Preakness to the winner) April 18. Instead, horse and trainer will wait.
“Everybody is on the same page – you, me, the horses,” Gonzalez said. “Everybody. It’s different. You go easier. All my horses run a lot and now I have to give them a little break and not train them too hard.”
With help from the MJC and MTHA, trainers stressed health and safety with employees. Separating people, disinfecting equipment regularly, using the hand sanitizing stations became part of the workday.
“We’re careful in the tack room,” said Keefe. “My exercise riders do tack. One is in the room, one is in the shedrow. Grooms and hotwalkers stay as far apart as they can. Everything’s disinfected. It’s always been cleaned thoroughly, but a little extra now.”
Laurel and Pimlico are home to hundreds of people who work in the barns and another 350 come through the stable gates each day as employees, trainers, veterinarians and vendors. Maintaining their safety was a priority, as was preserving their jobs. The MJC closed the stable areas to non-essential personnel, followed recommendations from the CDC and created a wellness committee to check on backstretch employees during the crisis.
“We are doing everything we can to keep everyone safe, because it’s dangerous,” said Gonzalez. “I’m scared, for the families. That’s why I told my employees they have to take care because it’s tough for everybody. Everybody is always washing their hands and not getting too close, everything we can do to be safe.”
All facets of the racing industry worried about the economics in play. No racing means no income from purses for owners, which translates to no commissions to trainers and a tighter overall financial picture. Trainers have payroll, insurance and other expenses in addition to the various ingredients needed for horse care – hay, feed, bedding and so on.
Trainer Lacey Gaudet was being optimistic, with an eye on her business.
“Our clients have said, ‘Keep them for as cheap as you can afford to and not go broke,’ and we’ve done that for some,” she said. “We have a lot that just came in – 3-year-olds who ran a lot last year, turf horses, that kind of thing. They need a couple months of training. Hopefully, this will end, and we will see some normalcy.”
While some trainers and other horse businesses cut numbers and payroll, Gaudet took the opportunity to add staff.
“We hired a groom, we hired an exercise rider who was out of a job,” she said. “We’re trying to be optimistic and to me it looks optimistic to think about [racing] again. We’re taking it 10 days or two weeks at a time and then we’ll see.”
The MTHA, with the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and that state’s Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, hosted a webinar about the government assistance programs from the Small Business Administration, states and other sources. More than 400 people took part. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association held a similar seminar addressing federal options. Early on, there was some talk of a racing-industry stimulus package involving dormant purse accounts but that could have created problems for the return of racing.
“We’re horsemen, we’re much better in the barn than we are in the office,” said Keefe. “But we have to take advantage of these things. We have to get past our anxiety, talk to our accountants. I hope horsemen do that. That’s why we did that webinar, to help horsemen navigate through that.”
Trainer Kieron Magee took the seemingly dramatic step of closing his barn at Pimlico, sending his 38 horses to nearby farms and laying off his barn staff. He was looking at a May 15 target date for ramping back up.
“I own a lot of them myself and if I don’t own all of them I own half of them,” said Magee, second in the Laurel standings this winter with 18 wins. “I thought to survive this and not knowing when the end would come it was a perfect time to give them some time off. When they called Laurel off that day [March 20], by 36 hours afterward all my horses were at the farm.”