Recently, a story that made more headlines than normal in the horse racing world was a bettor cashing a 50-cent pick-5 ticket for the cool winnings of $524,966 at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Florida. And your reaction was probably no different than most. And it probably was something along the lines of, “Wait, horse racing is still going on?”
Then again, a lot of people might have had this reaction before the coronavirus pandemic shutdown.
Most of the horse racing industry has shut down, with the bigger tracks and circuits like New York, California and Kentucky all suspending racing. Aqueduct has stopped, so has Santa Anita, and Churchill Downs has delayed its usual spring opening indefinitely. The Kentucky Derby has been moved to September, as has The Preakness. The Belmont Stakes has been put off but with no new date announced.
That doesn’t mean the entire industry has shut down, which is an example of the patchy nature of both the response to the current pandemic and the differing associations and laws regarding racing state-by-state. The largest, or most known, track that has continued to race is Gulfstream, where the aforementioned bet was placed and cashed. Well, it’s not where it was placed or cashed, as Gulfstream is not allowing fans. It was placed remotely, as racing continues for the benefit of those who bet that way.
Losing on-track spectators isn’t a huge loss for places like Gulfstream. While they may hope to attract a couple thousand on non-big event days, 90 percent of the wagers are placed online, which can still happen with everyone stuck at home.
It still makes for awkward, and even bewildering viewing, as Gulfstream Park is also a casino, but the casino is closed indefinitely due to the virus. Yet racing continues. The only way you can align those things in your head is to just say, “FLORIDA” and get on with your day, which seems to be happening a lot these days..
Oaklawn Park in Arkansas is still running, yet has also closed their casino. Does “ARKANSAS” cause the same acceptance of weirdness when you say it? It’s not totally distant, I suppose.
The real reason, or excuse, or shelter-in-a-storm that Gulfstream and Oaklawn have been able to remain open, at least for racing, is under the guise of the health of the horses. Which makes for some hilarious reading when you consider what racing has been through the past year (we’ll get to that). Anyway, the horses in the barns of Gulfstream Park would need to be walked and exercised, as standing in a stall for weeks on end would be extremely unhealthy for them. That would require some personnel on site, so they’ve just decided while they’re at it they’ll just go ahead and race. Give these people an inch...
On the surface, you might think you could see a way for racing to continue. The horses are walked in, saddled, and walked off the track at a safe distance for their handlers. The jockeys are only in close proximity in the starting gate, though during the race they bunch up. But if you think about it for more than just a few seconds you come up with some serious questions. Jockeys have their locker room, after all, and they aren’t usually very big.They also bunch up during races and in the gate. There’s also the gate crew working those starting gates. Oaklawn and Gulfstream have taken some measures to protect jockeys, though they aren’t nearly as safe as shutting down altogether, nor does it do much for groomers or hot walkers or the like.
One Hall of Fame jockey, Javier Castellano, has already tested positive and quarantined, but it’s hard to believe it will just stop there. Another prominent rider, Irad Ortiz Jr., has refused to ride during the crisis.
However, within the industry, the continuation of live racing has mostly been well received. Jim Miller, who is the director of publicity (along with other titles) at Hawthorne Race Course just outside of Chicago seems to think so.
“I definitely don’t feel they’re taking advantage of it, by any means. The horses have to remain being cared for every day,” Miller said. “They have to remain in training every day. The only way you can support a racehorse is through purse money. I think it’s great they’ve had the opportunity to go out there and race and earn their living.”
But as with just about anything else these days, it’s the ones lower on the food chain that are most vulnerable. Track workers work in close proximity to each other, and those who work with the horses tend to live on site and together. Most are immigrants and aren’t paid much, either. A track worker tested positive at New York’s Aqueduct, and hastened the shutdown of that track. Miller says, at least at places such as Hawthorne, workers aren’t taken care of.
“We have an organization called the RICS, The Racing Industry Charitable Foundation, and I’m the treasurer,” Miller said in describing the workers at Hawthorne. “What the RICS provides is we have on-site medical services, dental services, mental-health services, and any other needs of the backstretch workers that can be taken care of. We have physicians, dentists here. So the backstretch employees have a location to go to if they have any questions or to receive treatment. “
It doesn’t take much of a leap that places such as Gulfstream and Oaklawn are looking at all the sports wagering dollars that have been put on hold and eyeing a bigger slice for themselves. And while they may gussy it up with other reasons like “providing distraction” or “entertainment” that we’ve heard other industries try to use as a port in this storm, the money they can make clearly is the driving force. And before the mostly industry-wide shutdown, Fox and NBC Sports had increased their coverage of racing, simply because it was the only thing live with which to do so. Chaos is a ladder.
Miller sees the upside to that, however.
“Kudos to these tracks because they’re doing exceptionally well in regards to betting. And kudos to the fans for finding the sport,” he said. “The vast majority of the wagering has had to move to online wagering. You have fans that are staying home, they’re wagering online. They don’t have sports to be on right now so they’re supporting horse racing.”
How much money Gulfstream and Oaklawn are making is unknown. Daily handle, the amount of money wagered at the track, isn’t released publicly by every track. Overall, the industry was seeing something of a bounce-back this year.
But the smaller tracks have gotten in on the act as well. Fonner Park in Grand Island, Nebraska, hardly a household name in the industry, switched their racing program to a Monday-Wednesday schedule in order to be racing on the days Oaklawn and Gulfstream take off. A track that normally sees about $500,000 in daily handle has been averaging $2.3 million the past two weeks. They’re talking about extending their meet because of that. Not only that, but Nebraska’s racing circuit would normally switch to Omaha’s Horsemen’s Park in May. But that track’s management has said they won’t open due to Coronavirus, so Fonner Park is using that as another reason to fill in the gap. Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma, certainly a thoroughbred backwater, has also seen record handles by staying open. Both tracks are looking at these as a means to overall survival.
It’s a thornier issue than you might think. Pennsylvania is an example. Normally, the Penn racing industry is almost entirely subsidized by a tax on slot machines in the state, to the tune of some $200 million per year. Recently, the governor has proposed taking that money to apply it to more important services. However, that very well may end the industry in Pennsylvania, which directly or indirectly employs thousands of people at a time when employment is a huge issue around the country.
It was a rocky time for racing — and that’s being kind — before the shutdown. After Santa Anita’s annus horribilis in 2019, where over 35 horses died, calls for major changes to the industry, or an outright ending of it, ran rampant. Racing has seen only minimal changes so far, such as the phased-in banning of the drug Lasix on days horses race. Lasix was seen as something of a pain-killer and performance enhancer, and the hope is that the more vulnerable horses that were at greater risk without it won’t even make it to the track, and those that do will be slightly sturdier to the demands of racing. Again, though, racing’s biggest problem is the state-to-state nature of its regulations, and not every track or state has adopted the ban. But the major ones have, which is a start.
Still, other measures are harder to find. Would you believe Galactic Asshole And Snake Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader from Kentucky, got in the way of some measures? Never doubt how far and wide his tentacles can spread.
And that’s on top of the long-term struggles racing has had that have shoved it for years to the back of the American sporting consciousness. The industry has seen a lessening of wagering to the tune of up to $5 billion since the start of the century. The greater ease of sports betting on the internet certainly didn’t help, at least compared with the complexities of betting on horses. The parimutuel system of betting for horse racing is one of those complexities. It can turn some bettors to the fixed-odds form of sports betting. For example, when you get the Seahawks -6 on a Sunday, that’s what you get. It doesn’t matter what money comes in after it. Horse Racing handicappers are often frustrated at betting a horse at 8-1 10 minutes before the race goes off only to see him leave the gate at 5-1 or less (though if you talk to some serious handicappers, they wait to see where the late money goes, as the thinking is the people who really know what they’re doing take that long to decide. Make of that what you will).
It’s a healthy debate whether the mass legalization of sports betting will help or hurt tracks.
On the flip side, there are tracks such as Hawthorne, that are getting their own licenses for sportsbooks, figuring the more that attracts people to the track the more likely that at least some of them will want to bet on the racing there. It’s a balance.
Smaller tracks will suffer during the shutdown, and one or two along with some smaller-time trainers may not make it to the end. One problem that smaller trainers may have in getting back to racing is that they simply have not been able to keep their horses in shape. Some have even “turned out” their charges at farms, which means basically their horses are frolicking in the country just to be out of their stalls. But they’re not training. Time could be a factor to get these horses back in shape, and could cause some trainers to miss meets with some horses even when racing does open up.
“If you want to do it right, it would be a minimum of six weeks, and probably should be eight,” Miller said. “The concern there is that a lot of trainers and horsemen have turned their horses out to a farm. Because of that, they’re going to take even longer to get back and fit.”
But “being the only game in town” may also be a boon to the larger tracks such as Gulfstream and Oaklawn, and any other tracks that decide to open during the shutdown in the near future.
Another bonus for tracks that see it to the end of the shutdown is more money for their purses, as they won’t be spread out over nearly as many days. That will attract more and better quality horses to places that haven’t had them before whenever more of them decide to start racing again.
It appears that Gulfstream and Oaklawn are trying to thread the most difficult of needles. There was already concern and outrage about the safety of the horses that led to even more to turn away from the sport. Now there’s concern and outrage about the safety of those who work around it. And yet having the stage to themselves, could this actually help improve the outlook of racing?
“In the grand scheme of things the biggest thing horse racing needs to do is expose themselves to new fans,” Miller said. “They are able to do that right now.”