Amid deadly pandemic, racing is the only game in town

Horse Racing

In the days since the coronavirus pandemic brought America to a standstill, a pastoral sporting scene in Southern California has offered an idyllic atmosphere to overtake apocalyptic thoughts, if only for a moment.

“It’s like being at a mountain lake,” veterinarian Jeff Blea said. “Peaceful, serene, holistic. Horses and riders in a beautiful setting, with the majestic San Gabriel Mountains.”

At Santa Anita Park, where Blea’s practice treats more than one-fourth of the thoroughbreds, races have continued. Similar scenes are playing out at roughly two dozen racetracks from coast to coast — without fans in attendance.

“The strangest thing so far,” said Ron Nicoletti, a longtime handicapper and simulcast host at Florida’s Gulfstream Park, “is I usually don’t hear the horses thundering down the stretch, I hear the fans and the broadcast.”

At least for now, thoroughbreds, quarter horses, trotters and greyhounds provide the only games in town, though fans can watch and wager only online. For the past couple of decades, online viewing and betting were already far more popular than going to the track.

Although no horse racing organization publishes national totals, Gulfstream reported a Sunday handle of $11 million for 10 races, up $400,000 from the comparable 2019 Sunday, when there were 12 races. Wagers last weekend totaled more than $17.5 million at Aqueduct in New York and more than $11.5 million at Santa Anita.

At this time of year, nearly two dozen thoroughbred and quarter horse tracks would normally be active. As of Thursday, more than half were open. In harness racing, five tracks out of 18 that would normally be open are continuing to hold races. A handful of greyhound tracks are also racing.

For thoroughbred racing, the spotlight is an intriguing twist as the industry works to emerge from its existential crisis sparked by national attention over the deaths of more than 20 horses at Santa Anita in early 2019. That fueled demands for an end to the sport and triggered investigations and several active reform efforts, including the reintroduction of a bill in Congress to establish uniform anti-doping and medication control.

In another black eye, on March 9, federal prosecutors announced 27 indictments unrelated to Santa Anita, with trainers and veterinarians among those charged with doping offenses.

Horse racing’s role as other sports have gone dark is “a tremendous responsibility, and it’s an opportunity, given the last 14 months, to put our best foot forward,” said Mike Willman, Santa Anita’s director of publicity.

Alex Waldrop, CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said it’s an opportunity “for racing to sell itself to a new audience because there’s a dearth of sports betting out there right now.”

Kip Levin, president of the online sportsbook and gaming company FanDuel and CEO of its telecast and online wagering business TVG, said five times as many people signed up for TVG than did during the same weekend in 2019. The FanDuel racing app, launched in January, had its two biggest sign-up days.

“Our numbers — viewers and wagering — looked a lot more like Breeders’ Cup weekend than a normal weekend in March,” Levin said.

The sport’s biggest event, the Kentucky Derby, has been moved from May to September because of the pandemic, and it appears likely that the Preakness and Belmont Stakes will follow with four-month delays. But some other big-stakes races plan to go ahead. The $1 million Louisiana Derby is still on for this Saturday, sans fans, at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. The same is true, Willman said, for the $1 million Santa Anita Derby on April 4.

“Certainly, it’s good for the industry, and it’s good for the fans,” Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said of the ongoing races. “There’s a whole community that supports these horses, and there’s a whole infrastructure and purse structure and economy around these events, so the fact that some tracks have been able to safely conduct horse racing while maintaining social distancing has been a nice thing.”

According to Blea, there is full-fledged commitment among the racing community to precautions pertaining to social distancing and hygiene. Throughout barn areas, he said, there are hand sanitizers and Centers for Disease Control posters about the coronavirus, and any workers who don’t feel well are staying away. Willman said jockeys are having their temperatures taken before races.

Blea and Waldrop also said there is no evidence so far that humans pose a coronavirus risk to horses, or vice versa.

Track and broadcast officials said on-site staffing is being kept to a minimum, with as many people working from home as possible.

On Monday, a New York Racing Association announcement regarding Aqueduct’s races said, “Until further notice, only racetrack staff essential to officiate and report on live racing per [New York State Gaming Commission] rules, including, but not limited to, stewards, trainers, assistant trainers and grooms, will be permitted on-site. Owners will not be permitted access to Aqueduct.”

Race presentation is changing, too. Nicoletti said the Gulfstream simulcast plan for Friday through Sunday is to have the usual three co-hosts alternate so only one is at the track each day. The other two will provide analysis from home via social media.

As for the betting outlook, some professional gamblers and handicappers who don’t usually delve into horse racing say they aren’t tempted now.

“I don’t need to bet to satisfy a fix or craving,” said college football specialist Paul Stone, who added that he wagers only on sports he follows closely. That hasn’t been the case with horse racing in many years.

Bill Krackomberger, whose handicapping focuses on the major team sports and golf, said it’s hard to overcome the “juice” — commissions taken by sportsbooks for bets — which he and others say can be four times higher in horse racing than in other sports.

“I won’t be betting it, zero chance,” Krackomberger said. “I am in contact with the sharpest sports betting syndicates in the world, and nobody has talked about horse racing as a way to make money.”

Another factor is the stock market plunge and continuing financial uncertainties. As Willman put it, “There’s a great deal of angst, so even though it’s the only game in town, there might not be an appetite for some to bet a lot.”

While racing continues, there are reminders that the sport and everyone in it remain vulnerable to the virus currently affecting everything else.

Last week, former harness racing trainer John Brennan, 69, became the first person in New Jersey to die of the coronavirus. Brennan, a field representative for the horseman’s association, was at New York’s Yonkers Raceway on Feb. 28, track officials said. They responded to his March 10 death by shutting down the track and asking employees to self-quarantine.

U.S. Trotting Association CEO Mike Tanner said that before Brennan’s death, “the pandemic seemed abstract to a degree.”

“Then, when somebody you know — a fixture – dies, it hits you viscerally and makes the situation real,” he said.

As ESPN interviewed Tanner by phone Wednesday afternoon, he received news that the coronavirus claimed the life of trainer Carmine Fusco, 55, whose horses had run recently at Yonkers and in his home state of Pennsylvania. Fusco’s sister died last Friday after contracting the virus, his mother died with it later Wednesday and other family members are hospitalized with it, according to the The New York Times. The infection of the Fuscos was reportedly linked to Brennan’s.

It was another reminder, if one is needed, that the last sport standing is unlikely to last — even in its current form.

“Right now, things are good and quiet,” Blea said, “but I’m not optimistic we’ll continue racing past two weeks because of the seriousness of the disease and the pandemic. It’s going to get worse.”

ESPN researcher John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.

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