Fresh off the heels of Oaklawn Park’s record-setting $41 million closing day last Saturday, horse racing seemingly has full momentum heading into the summer racing calendar. But now, between the Arkansas track’s seasonal closure and the ongoing pandemic, bettors are left wondering: what’s next?
First, the good news. Gulfstream Park, based outside of Miami and one of the nation’s most popular tracks among bettors, continues running spectator-free with full fields, despite the lack of purse contributions from its onsite casino. Track officials have stakes action scheduled throughout the summer, providing chances for horsemen to earn big dollars.
Some 4 1/2 hours northwest, Tampa Bay Downs recently extended its meet in order to keep the racing action alive. Originally scheduled to end its meet on May 3, Tampa Bay Downs officials received approval from Florida regulators to continue operating spectator-free racing through May 30, the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend.
Like Gulfstream Park, Tampa Bay Downs attracts snowbirds from the north during the winter months, and with the state of racing throughout the northeast and midwest still very much up in the air, the tracks have become much-needed relief centers for stabling, training, and making a living.
“There is a whole group of us that go from Tampa to Monmouth (Park in New Jersey),” trainer Kathleen O’Connell said in a recent BloodHorse article. “There is another whole group that go to Presque Isle (in Pennsylvania), and another whole group that go to Indiana (Grand). And to at least have some relief, someplace to train horses, some racing to generate income, I’m sure I’m speaking for everybody in saying it’s a godsend.”
Fonner Park, a small bullring track based in Grand Island, Nebraska, technically added a second meet to its calendar, with non-spectator operations continuing through May 27. When the pandemic began forcing many tracks to temporarily cease operations, Fonner Park officials shifted racing dates from Friday-Sunday to Monday-Wednesday. The experiment saw its handle – which had never exceeded $1.3 million – skyrocket to a daily average of over $2.5 million and set a new single-day record of $7.2 million on April 7.
More reason for optimism came on May 3 when, after receiving the green light from Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, Churchill Downs announced that its spring meet will open on Saturday, May 16. Track officials also announced that the Matt Winn Stakes (G3), historically run in mid-June, has been moved up to May 23. For the first time, the 1 1/16-mile dirt event for 3-year-olds will also reward the top four finishers with Kentucky Derby (G1) Trail points on a 10-4-2-1 scale. The Derby itself was previously postponed until September 3.
“We truly appreciate the leadership of Governor Beshear and all of the hard work and guidance that state and local officials and public health experts have provided us to safely reopen,” said Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery. “The health and safety of our horsemen, staff and community remains paramount. Strict compliance with our comprehensive COVID-19 Action Plan and social distancing guidelines is our responsible duty to effectively contain the virus.”
Churchill Downs was not the only major track to recently release its first condition book since the pandemic began. Santa Anita Park released its own book on April 30, with racing scheduled to commence May 15. Though the southern California facility ceased racing operations on March 27 under orders from the Los Angeles County Public Health Department, horsemen have been permitted to continue stabling and training, so in theory, the local barns should be well-prepared come May 15.
A pair of Grade 1 events headline Santa Anita Park’s slate for June 6. The Santa Anita Derby, a major Kentucky Derby prep race awarding 100 points to the winner, will join The Gold Cup at Santa Anita Stakes on a card that also includes the Santa Anita Oaks (G2) (a major Kentucky Oaks [G1] prep), the Desert Code Stakes (G3), the Cinema Stakes, and the Fran’s Valentine Stakes.
There is one rather large roadblock still standing in the way, however: local authorities carry the final word on whether or not the facility can resume racing. The Stronach Group, which owns and operates several tracks nationwide (including Santa Anita Park and Gulfstream Park), recently submitted a proposal to the Department’s Board, requesting permission to resume non-spectator racing under strict safety measures. Still, as of May 4, no decision has been announced.
“Horse racing is unique, as we cannot literally open the doors the moment orders are relaxed,” Aidan Butler, Chief Strategy Officer for The Stronach Group, recently said. “Horsemen need time to plan, which is why the tentative date is being put forth. … (T)his resumption would be subject to the stringent restrictions which were included in the plan and protocols currently under consideration.”
A thicker cloud of uncertainty hangs over the northeast and midwest racing circuits, including the trio of courses managed by the New York Racing Association (NYRA) – Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga. Aqueduct shuttered its doors for live racing on March 19, exactly one month before its scheduled conclusion date.
Just 10 miles away, New York-based horsemen continue training at Belmont Park in hopes that Governor Andrew Cuomo will permit live racing to resume soon. Opening Day, scheduled for April 24, was postponed, but the historic Saratoga summer meet – planned to run from July 16 until September 5 – is still on schedule to operate as planned.
“We’re maintaining their fitness and continuing to breeze them, so we’re ready to go when we get the green light,” said trainer Charlton Baker, whose clients include several New York breeders. “I have a few coming off a layoff and we’re working to get them ready in time for when we re-open.”
Until that day comes, bettors are left wagering with their fingers crossed on the few tracks lucky enough to operate.