As restrictions were implemented in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, racetracks in Pennsylvania ceased live racing while their backstretch communities there and in Delaware grappled with everyday living.
At Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pa., the last day of live racing was March 10. The main track remained open for training five days a week, and the majority of owners and trainers kept their horses on the backstretch, rather than send them to a farm.
Soon after shutting down, Parx management required all backstretch employees to sign a “Waiver and Release of All Claims” document which stated they would not sue if they contracted COVID-19 while at Parx; if they did not, they would not be allowed through the stable gate. Beginning March 25, the stable area was closed to incoming horses.
Questions directed to David Osojnak, Parx director of racing, were routed through upper management, and were unanswered at the time of writing.
Stables large and small were feeling the effects of the shutdown. Ed Coletti Jr., who trains more than 20 horses and is a new member of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association board of directors, said he was trying to keep his horses in condition as of April 1. But, he said, times could get rough if the shutdown was prolonged.
“We’re all getting desperate, to be honest,” he said. “There’s no racing, no way to make money. I’ve kept all my horses at the track, and I’m trying to keep all my help and not lay anyone off.
“We have a lot more smaller, mom-and-pop owners here than on the bigger circuits,” he said. “It’s going to be hard for them to keep paying the bills if this shutdown goes for more than a month or two. They have mortgages, families to feed.”
Lou Linder Jr., who also trains a barnful of horses on the Parx backstretch, said he might be forced to reduce his workforce.
“We’re training, but we can’t run or ship anywhere,” he said. “I may have to lay off two of my guys; I hate to do it, but I don’t have a choice.” Kate DeMasi, who has horses at Parx and Penn National, was working to maintain her staff levels.
“I haven’t had to lay anyone off so far,” said the PTHA board member. “Everyone is in the same boat. Here at Parx, we’ve experienced quarantines before (a 21-day quarantine due to the Equine Herpes Virus in January 2019 and similar quarantines in 2013, 2015 and 2016), so we are familiar with the procedures.”
DeMasi said that an issue facing many horsemen during the extended shutdown is that of boredom, or being idle.
“We’re used to putting in long days from sunup to sundown,” she said. “We’re training, entering, running, claiming, going to sales . . . it’s something that most horsemen aren’t used to.”
At Penn National in Grantville, Pa., the shutdown of live racing took effect March 14. Horsemen and employees were required to sign a “Waiver and Release of All Claims,” the exact document Parx horsemen had to sign (just the racetrack name was changed), which stated they would not sue management in the event they contract COVID-19 on the premises.
Chris McErlean, vice president of Penn National Gaming, said it was too soon to say what the plan would be to reschedule lost live race days.
“Our focus is getting through this current situation and then we will regroup and evaluate internally and with horsemen,” he said.
Trainer Erin McClellan said she was lucky to have the support of her owners during the shutdown, and while she hasn’t had to lay off any employees or send horses to the farm, she understands that a prolonged period of no racing could change that.
“These are unprecedented times and sometimes it is difficult to know how to move forward but we do,” she said. “As long as we continue to train and our owners are comfortable in their situation we will continue to support our help. That being said, I do know of other horsemen who have lost some of their horses as a result of COVID-19 and have had to lay off employees.
“Our industry instills resiliency and hope in people,” she continued. “Horsemen are tough and we will all get through this.”
McClellan said the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association was the saving grace for horsemen – assuming the cost needed to keep the track open for training when management declined to do so, due to lost business from having to shutter their casinos.
“We’re paying $66,000 per month to keep the racetrack open for training,” said Todd Mostoller, executive director of the HBPA. “We felt it was important that we keep training, and in the best interest of the horses. We will help our horsemen in need. Right now, nobody has all the answers.”
David Bushey, who runs Bush Racing Stable with his father Brian, said they were doing some business continuity planning to determine if and when to make changes with the horses they have in training. The stable has horses with Tim Kreiser at Penn National, Lacey Gaudet in Maryland and Ray Handal in New York.
“Thankfully we had a pretty good start to the year and won three straight just prior to the shutdown, but that money won’t last long,” said Bushey. “As a medium-size claiming stable, we rely heavily on purse money in order to keep our operation viable.”
Bushey said that many owners might be forced to find new homes for lower-level claimers if the shutdown stretches out across many months.
“It’s tough to justify months of day rate you’ll likely never recoup in future earnings [with lower-level claimers],” he said. “The downstream effect of a shutdown is terrible for so many people – jockeys, agents, vets, farriers – the list goes on and on.”
Bushey pointed out that the average monthly cost to maintain a horse at Penn National and Laurel is anywhere from $2,400-$3,000.
“When you consider that low-level claimers run for $10,000-$15,000 in purse money, an owner is set to net $4,700-$7,100 after you take out the jockey and trainer expenses [10 percent each], and other expenses for the win,” he said. “Depending on risk tolerance and financial situation, an owner may not be willing to invest $5,000-$6,000 [for a two-month shutdown] into a cheaper horse knowing that there is little chance to get back into the black, let alone even pay the bills.”
While the 2020 racing season was not set to begin until May 27, the backstretch at Delaware Park was a busy place in March, with horsemen on the grounds for training and stabling.
Delaware employed one of the most unique and stringent methods for keeping the stable area free from COVID-19 since Gov. John Carney announced stay-at-home orders March 22.
Anyone with a temperature of 100.4 and above was refused entry into the stable area, and those whose temperatures were normal would get a wristband to wear, with colors changing daily. Those living on the backstretch had to report to the safety steward’s office to have their temperatures checked.
The protocol was developed between Delaware Park management, Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission acting executive director Sarah Crane, safety steward Eric Courieux, and Bessie Gruwell, executive director of the Delaware Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.
“The system is relatively smooth,” said Gruwell. “We’ve used a different color wristband every day – so we could easily tell if someone’s temperature was taken when they returned at feed time or for maintenance employees that work for Delaware Park.
“If Gov. Carney’s stay-at-home orders remain in effect for a prolonged period,” she continued, “I can’t imagine our race meet will start as scheduled.”
Delaware’s 83rd live racing season was set to run 85 days through Oct. 31.
Presque Isle Downs
The start of the 13th season at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., was in limbo as of the end of March as the coronavirus rampaged across America.
Live racing had been expected to commence May 11 and run through Oct. 22, but that schedule wasn’t likely to happen, according to Mostoller, executive director of the Pennsylvania HBPA, which represents horsemen at Penn National and Presque Isle Downs.
“We decided that it would be difficult to open the track for training before the end of April, so we might have to push back the start of racing,” said Mostoller, who said he was in discussions with track representatives. “And because slot revenues help fund purses, the stakes schedule might have to be tweaked.”
The first stakes race on the 2020 calendar was the $100,000 guaranteed Tom Ridge Stakes, set for Monday, May 18. The meet’s highlight, the $400,000 Presque Isle Downs Master Stakes-G2, had been scheduled for Monday, Sept. 21.
Like others, West Virginia halts racing on state stay-at-home order
Written by Tom LaMarra
Two days after live racing was halted by Gov. Jim Justice because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races was able to resume its racing program under strict guidelines that included closing the grandstand to the public.
On the evenings of March 20-21, the track operated with only essential personnel and additional restrictions in the stable area. The operation was successful given the short notice, but the return to live racing was short-lived.
On March 23, Justice issued a stay-at-home order, and a day later Charles Town announced a shutdown until further notice.
“We only raced the two nights under those conditions,” said Erich Zimny, vice president of racing and sports operations at Charles Town. “It worked well, but it was obvious as the [COVID-19] situation progressed and got worse it was made clear it was not the right decision to go on.”
Access was limited to licensed owners, trainers and essential personnel. Owners, however, were only permitted on nights their horses were racing. Family members or guests of licensed participants weren’t permitted access, nor were individuals under 16 years of age.
But that didn’t seem to matter. The primary focus was simply having racing opportunities.
“People were far more receptive to staying away,” Zimny said. “I don’t think there was one owner there, except for the owners who also train. But I think it gave some people a sense of normalcy in as safe an environment that we could provide.”
The night of racing before the shutdown at Charles Town marked the successful return of Grams Racing Stable’s Runnin’toluvya, who had been on the sidelines since his troubled last-place finish in the West Virginia Breeders Classic last October.
The winner of almost $1 million returned to the work tab for trainer Tim Grams Feb. 10 and worked another three times at Charles Town in preparation for his 2020 debut. He was nominated for a $35,000 overnight stakes on March 21, but that event was replaced with a $32,500 West Virginia-bred allowance race with no conditions.
The scratch of Little Big Sime left a field of four in a race that pitted Runnin’toluvya against David Raim’s Penguin Power, who closed 2019 with seven consecutive wins. The Jeff Runco trainee set a quick pace with Runnin’toluvya never worse than a length and a half behind. Penguin Power opened his advantage turning for home but Runnin’toluvya wore him down to win by 2 lengths in 1:25.31 for 7 furlongs.
Mean Bean and North Atlantic rounded out the order of finish in the top-quality state-bred race on a night in which Charles Town fell less than $1,000 shy of $1.5 million in total pari-mutuel handle, and the previous night handled $1.25 million. With other tracks having suspended racing, the previous Saturday night’s eight race-card generated $1.9 million in wagering, roughly $700,000 higher than a typical Saturday.
“There’s no question that when the market shrank [from various closures] and people needed something to watch or wager on, it was a factor,” Zimny said. “Racing, unlike a casino, doesn’t need a single person [on site] to bring in some revenue [from wagering].”
When the best of the West Virginia-bred runners would square off again remained to be seen in early April. Track management had to alter its racing schedule given the uncertainty about when the shutdown would be lifted. Because the casino at Charles Town was closed before live racing was suspended, video lottery terminal revenue for the purse account dried up. In light of that, management and horsemen agreed to drop five racing programs – four Wednesdays from late March through mid-April and Sunday, May 10.
The $1 million Charles Town Classic-G2 and multiple open stakes set for April 18 will be rescheduled, but the track was still hoping to card the four state-bred stakes scheduled for that day if live racing resumed in time. Regarding the training of horses, Charles Town implemented a revised schedule in late March. Training was permitted Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday for horses in the care of trainers with stalls on the grounds. To limit traffic in the barn area, horses were permitted to ship only on Wednesdays.
Feed and hay vendors were required to contact the racing office prior to a delivery in the stable area, open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The track kitchen remained open, but offered takeout service only.
Charles Town enacted protocol similar to that in other states in the region in regard to health and safety measures on the backstretch.
Along with social distancing while at work, the use and sanitizing of equipment and stalls was emphasized. Best practices included assigning equipment to specific personnel and not storing the equipment in the same place; spraying, soaking and wiping equipment each day; and cleaning things such as doorknobs, stall gates, door handles and counters frequently.
Most of the measures were temporary, though some tied to health and safety could serve as best practices going forward.
“A lot of this stuff has utility now, but sure, we’ll look at stuff [going forward] if it’s good,” Zimny said. “There are a lot of things people took for granted that they don’t do in their everyday lives.”
Maria Catignani, executive director of the Charles Town Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said the horsemen’s office remained open on a Tuesday-Saturday schedule but all business was conducted without in-person contact.
“I think it has gone pretty smoothly from an operating perspective,” she said. “We weren’t open for walk-ins but let everyone know to take any method – phone, email, fax – to communicate with us. We circulated information about the available loan programs to give people financial assistance.”
The local chaplaincy program already has a food bank, but the horsemen’s group added another one. The Charles Town HBPA also paid the costs related to keeping the racetrack open for training.
Catignani said it took a couple of days for horsemen to adjust to the training changes, but thereafter things went well. The West Virginia Racing Commission, because of lack of manpower during the shutdown, couldn’t maintain licensing services but allowed those with permits set to expire April 30 to have continued backstretch access until they could be relicensed.
“Everybody is really working very hard to keep the business as normal as possible in a very difficult time,” Catignani said. “Our first and foremost goal is the safety, health and care of our horses and the safety, health and care of the people taking care of the horses.”
At the other end of West Virginia, Mountaineer Racetrack also was shuttered after the order from the governor. The track’s 2020 race meet was scheduled to begin April 26, but the opening date, as well as when the barn area would open, remained up in the air in early April.
With casinos closed, tracks such as those in West Virginia that rely heavily on purse revenue derived from gaming could have to make adjustments to racing schedules at the outset. And the go-ahead to race again, most likely with essential personnel only for a period of time, isn’t a matter of flipping a switch.
“The biggest impediment I see is horses who weren’t in hard training may not be ready – that could cause the biggest time lag to when we can open and when we actually do open,” Zimny said. “[A decision on the return of live racing] is bigger than any of us. When we are allowed to proceed, we’ll have to take steps to ramp back up.”
Monmouth eyes late opening, Colonial still on schedule
Written by Tom Law
New Jersey trailed only New York in the number of coronavirus cases through early April and officials at Monmouth Park were forced to shift the track’s opening of the 75th anniversary season back from May 2 to July 3. All activity at Monmouth – including simulcasting and sports betting – ceased March 16, a few days before a state-mandated shutdown of nonessential businesses.
Monmouth’s barn area was scheduled to open April 11 and that was initially pushed back to May and then to June 1 while the racing office revises the first condition book and tries to look ahead toward a racing schedule that starts in July. How it all works remains to be seen.
“I basically just threw it away,” John Heims, Monmouth’s director of racing and racing secretary, said in early April about the first condition book. “The hardest part for us is we have people that are coming in from a lot of different places. We had some interest from Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, some new guys that we hope still come. As this meet gets further down the line I’m not sure what their plans will be. I hope they still come.”
The first five days of the meet’s condition book featured five stakes and another four were written for May 23, including the $150,000 Salvator Mile-G3 and $150,000 Monmouth-G3. Heims said he hoped to bring back the races lost in a later book or as extras, with the caveat that the adjusted Opening Day will go off as hoped.
“I don’t know if that’s ambitious at this point,” Heims said. “It’s probably too early to tell where we’re heading and in terms of where we’ve been.” The $1 million TVG.com Haskell Invitational-G1 anchors the meet July 18 and is one of 12 graded stakes scheduled for 2020.
Churchill Downs’ decision to shift the Kentucky Derby-G1 from its traditional first Saturday in May to Saturday, Sept. 5, figures to change the Haskell significantly from how it’s looked for much of the previous 51 editions. “It could be totally different,” Heims said. “We always shot for the horses that came out of the Triple Crown, now it looks like we’ll get horses that are going for the Triple Crown. It’s a whole new ballgame.
“I haven’t heard anything out of Churchill as far as what they’re doing with points for the summer races but as we sit now we’re seven weeks out from the Derby. I guess we still need to see what everybody else is going to do but we have a TV contract with NBC. Whether that changes or not we don’t know. Maybe there’s opportunity now with the Olympics not being contested that if they wanted to change that it could. It’s too early to say if we’re going to do anything but I like our position at this point. A lot of trainers like that kind of spacing.”
Colonial Downs features the latest opening of any of the region’s tracks and management in New Kent, Va., is optimistic to hit the targeted start to the second race meeting following last year’s successful return from a nearly five-year hiatus.
“We’re going along, status quo, because who knows?” said Jill Byrne, Colonial’s vice president of racing. “We’re preparing as if everything will be happening as it’s supposed to. We’re preparing to open the barn area July 9, that’s two weeks before Opening Day, July 23.”
Colonial Downs Group followed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and temporarily closed its four Rosie’s Gaming Emporium facilities indefinitely March 15 while committing to pay its employees through the end of April. The track operator also committed to serving free “grab and go” meals to coronavirus first responders during the crisis through its Hungry Heroes program.
Byrne said about 3,000 meals were served to doctors, nurses, police officers, grocery store workers and others dealing with the crisis over a week’s span in late March into early April and that more than 20,000 had been served overall through April 6.
“This is a good company, they’re good people and doing what they can to take care of their employees and the community,” Byrne said.
Work continued in some parts of the racetrack, including the scheduled controlled burn of the turf course March 30. Construction projects in other parts of the facility also continued in late winter and early spring, including work on surveillance camera installation in the stable area, barns not used at the 2019 meet and a second upgrade to the turf course’s irrigation system.
“The good thing about any work like that is it’s outside,” Byrne said. “Our crew is still following all protocol of masks and gloves, no more than 10 people in an area at a time. We’re doing some work on some of the back barns, getting them renovated.
“We just completed that [April 3]. We didn’t open all the barns last year, most of them but not all of them, and we’ll have all the barns available this year. All that stuff is ongoing, any jobs that needed to be done in the stable area, that is work as normal.”
Racing secretary Allison DeLuca and most of the team, which includes assistant Sam Elliott, were wrapping up the Tampa Bay Downs meeting in early April and were planning to publish the condition book around May 1. Byrne also said stall applications would go out by late April.
Colonial announced just before the health crisis shut down much of the U.S. that it would run Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from July 23 to Aug. 29, with a scheduled post time of 5:30 p.m. The track planned for an average daily purse distribution of $500,000, with the $250,000 Virginia Derby-G3 and $150,000 Virginia Oaks run Closing Day headlining the stakes schedule.
“The purse structure for now remains the same, $500,000 a day,” Byrne said. “Obviously who knows come July 23 if there has to be an adjustment made to that. We’ll have to see but we’re still on target for the regular stakes program.”
Written by Joe Clancy
Home to several hundred horses who race at regional tracks, but without housing for barn employees, Maryland’s Fair Hill Training Center carried on while keeping an eye on state mandates and guidance from health officials. The clockers’ tower occupancy was limited and trainers adjusted their schedules for no regional racing.
“It’s slower around here,” said general manager Sally Goswell. “People are not feeling the pressure to train on Sundays, people watch their horses train from their cars or spaced out along the rail.”
Fair Hill cut its gate crew (which comes from Parx Racing) to two days a week from three, but extended hours. Crew members wear face masks and keep an empty stall between horses. There was some concern about trainers and employees returning from Florida and Louisiana, but some stayed out of Fair Hill longer than usual this spring. Others told staff to self-isolate for two weeks before returning to work.
Work around the plant stayed on schedule. Goswell works alone in the office and maintenance personnel are typically solo as well.
“We maintain the tracks, like normal, we’re trying to keep ahead of the mowing and everything else we do,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure our employees stay healthy, but it’s not much different. We’re holding off on some optional things we might have done, we’re not bringing in outside contractors and we limit contact around the maintenance building.”
In early April, Maryland prohibited horse riding on public lands which closed the fields and trails to trail riders and horses from the training center. Like Laurel and Pimlico and other training facilities, Fair Hill was permitted to operate and horses could be exercised – but had to stay within the 300 leased acres on the Department of Natural Resources property.
Economically, Fair Hill was carrying on. Barns are privately owned and owners pay fees to support the upkeep of common areas such as the racetracks. Brief racing closures were of a concern to individual trainers, but not necessarily to the overall business. A prolonged time with no racing could have a bigger impact.
“Short term, there’s not that much difference and our operation is least affected probably,” Goswell said. “If it goes on a long time, if there’s no racing for a long long time, and people close up their barns, that’s the worry. It sounds extreme but it’s out there. I just hope everyone can weather the storm of not racing for a while.”