Racing’s fragile bravado in the face of the coronavirus was cut down to size Thursday afternoon, begging the question of how much longer it can stand against the tide of the pandemic.
The New York Racing Association canceled live racing at Aqueduct immediately and indefinitely after a test came back positive Thursday on a backstretch worker who had been quarantined since last Friday. Reports from the Daily Racing Form and The New York Times said that it was a groom who lives with his roommate at Belmont Park, where racing is out of season, and works both there and 6½ miles away at Aqueduct, where New York horses race this time of year.
“This individual and his roommate have been in isolation since prior to racing last Friday,” NYRA boss Dave O’Rourke said in a written media statement that was emailed Thursday at 3:09 p.m. EDT. “We are working with the county and state departments of health to ensure proper quarantine and sterilization practices will continue to be followed moving forward.”
The domino effect was immediate. As is the case at most racetracks, hundreds of people live in low-cost and sometimes makeshift housing in stable areas, keeping them as close as possible to the horses in their care. The communities of backstretch workers are close – both physically and socially.
For that reason, the response is far more complicated than simply cancelling racing. The horses are still in those barns at Belmont Park and for that matter at racetracks around the country. The prevailing wisdom was that if horses must be exercised in the mornings, the same people working them could then race them in the afternoon. With fans locked out of tracks, there theoretically was little to no added risk of spreading the coronavirus. And betting dollars would continue to flow; Aqueduct attracted a more than $12 million handle last weekend.
But prevailing wisdom is one thing. Appearances are another. As one track executive told VSiN last week, “We’re just one positive test away from being shut down.”
That executive does not work in New York, so his track is still open for racing as are most around the country. The notable exceptions for now are Aqueduct, Hoosier Park in Indiana, Parx northeast of Philadelphia, Sunland Park near El Paso and Turf Paradise in Phoenix. Keeneland, the track in Kentucky that is scheduled to host the Breeders’ Cup this autumn, canceled its upcoming spring meet. Hawthorne in Chicago was already closed because of casino construction.
Late Thursday, Gulfstream Park executives announced that live racing would be suspended for one day Friday while access and health protocols were tightened, especially for the jockeys room.
Racing’s biggest move caused by the coronavirus was Monday’s postponement of the Kentucky Derby. The race scheduled for May 2 was pushed back to Sept. 5.
Even as most tracks continue to try and make a go of it without spectators, that does not mean that all jockeys and trainers are following their collective lead.
“After a lot of consideration I have decided to stop riding,” reigning U.S. champion jockey Írad Ortiz Jr. wrote Thursday afternoon on Twitter. “This is the safest decision for my family and myself. Hopefully we can all make it safely out of this quarantine sooner than later and get back to what we all love.” Ortiz had been committed to ride Portos for trainer Todd Pletcher in Saturday’s $1 million Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, the first major prep race this season for the now-postponed Kentucky Derby.
Aidan O’Brien, the sport’s most successful trainer outside the U.S., said that he would not be with his horses next Saturday at Dubai World Cup night in the Middle East, yet another card that is going forward without spectators and in spite of the withdrawal of a growing number of jockeys who have decided not to fly there.
But O’Brien and Ortiz are connections who probably do not have to worry as much about a day’s work as most others in the racing business. Thousands of daily and hourly workers have already been shut out of their livelihoods because spectators are not welcome now at racetrack grandstands. Now stable workers are on the verge of losing their income because of an unflinching pandemic.
While the loss of racing in America’s biggest media market is justifiably getting a lot of attention, gamblers still have the opportunity to bet on thoroughbreds at no fewer than 14 tracks around the country. Handle figures available from Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park showed more than $37 million were bet on their races last Saturday and Sunday. Almost all those wagers were placed far from the closed windows at those tracks.
But right now it seems as though money cannot buy good health. With admittedly notable exceptions, racing is betting that it can live with certain restrictions and still go forward. But it is a gamble. And that is something that this sport had better remember, especially since it practically invented the word long before we were born.
Racing notes and opinions
It was supposed to be the first major prep for this spring’s Kentucky Derby. But now Saturday’s Louisiana Derby is just another million-dollar race on the lengthening road to Labor Day weekend at Churchill Downs. Lecomte winner Enforceable (7-2) is the morning-line favorite after an impressive second-place finish to Mr. Monomoy in the better division of last month’s Risen Star. His deep-closing style should fit this weekend’s longer distance of 9½ furlongs. But a forecast of rain may make it tough for him to make a big, late run in a field of 14. If the track is sloppy, my play will be on Wells Bayou (8-1), a two-time winner on wet tracks and the would-be pacesetter in a field lacking much early speed. On exotic tickets I will include Enforceable and Portos (8-1), Todd Pletcher’s Tapit colt that won by 10 lengths breaking his maiden on New Year’s Eve in the Aqueduct slop. I will also play a daily-double ticket with these three on the back end with Finite (3-5), Steve Asmussen’s filly that brings a five-race winning streak into the $400,000 Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks, a points prep for the now Sept. 4 Kentucky Oaks. The Fair Grounds Oaks starts Saturday at 5:15 p.m. EDT; the Louisiana Derby is at 5:49 p.m.
Hoping to keep the Triple Crown in tact, Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said that talks are under way with NBC Sports to move the Preakness Stakes presumably to Sept. 19 and the Belmont Stakes to Oct. 10. But he does not speak for The Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico, and NYRA, which runs the Belmont. “They were receptive; they have their own questions,” Carstanjen told reporters in a conference call Monday. “Certainly there is time in the calendar that NBC can make available so we can (have) pretty similar spacing that we normally have between Triple Crown races. It’s all possible. They just have to work it out together, and I hope they do.” For their part TSG and NYRA were non-committal, saying only that they were in discussions to decide if they needed to change the dates of their classics.
The rest of the road to the Derby and the Oaks is a work in progress that will require the addition of races this spring and summer. “We will take existing stake races around the country and incorporate them into our points system,” Carstanjen said. “Current points already earned will still count toward the first Saturday in September, but details on races we will add are yet to be finalized. This will be fun and give the fans more time to learn about and evaluate this year’s crop of 3-year-old thoroughbreds.” One challenge is keeping big summertime races like the Haskell and the Travers relevant. That may mean moving them to early August. The Haskell at Monmouth Park is currently scheduled for July 18, and the Travers is penciled in for Aug. 29 at Saratoga.
With Bob Baffert training Authentic, Nadal and Charlatan – three of the four shortest-priced horses in William Hill’s Kentucky Derby futures – will he have prep races available to them this summer near their home base? Aside from sprints, the only southern California dirt stakes just for 3-year-olds between May 2 and Sept. 5 are the Grade 3 Affirmed at Santa Anita on June 14 and the Shared Belief at Del Mar on Aug. 23, only 13 days before the Derby. There is little doubt that Del Mar racing secretary David Jerkens will be writing at least one new prep to fill the void.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning – more frequently for big races – at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Since racing continues through the coronavirus scare, a preview of Saturday’s Louisiana Derby is a big part of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. Trainer Mark Casse and turf writer Byron King of the Blood-Horse discuss the race, the pandemic’s impact on the sport and the extended road to a postponed Kentucky Derby. Monday’s pop-up episode of the RFRP is still available. It focused on the coronavirus impact and featured trainer Wesley Ward, XBTV’s Millie Ball Yakteen, Racing Post’s Paris-based correspondent Scott Burton and Saratoga Special’s Tom Law. All episodes of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod are available via Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. The RFRP is sponsored by 1/ST BET.