U.S. Race Tracks Await State Go-Aheads

Not all U.S. sports came to a halt when the coronavirus hit. A small number of racetracks—including Oaklawn Park (l.), Tampa Bay Downs, and Los Alamitos—have continued operating, albeit to empty stands. Their success gives hope that other tracks may resume racing soon.

U.S. Race Tracks Await State Go-Aheads

For sports betting to succeed, you have to have sports to bet on. Since the coronavirus knocked professional and college games out of commission, U.S. sportsbooks have offered wagers on everything from Belarus soccer and English darts to sumo wrestling and table tennis.

But some traditional sports remain. A handful of racetracks still run horses in this country and abroad—sans spectators—and bettors can still wager on the outcome. They include stateside tracks like Fonner Park, Will Rogers Downs, Tampa Bay Downs, Oaklawn Park, Gulfstream Park, Remington Park and Los Alamitos.

And shuttered tracks, like Laurel Park in Maryland, which closed March 15, have been champing at the bit to race.

Steve Koch, senior vice president of racing for the Stronach Group, which owns Laurel Park, Pimlico and other tracks across the country, said health guidelines take precedence.

“We don’t want to go against the grain for what is safe,” Koch told The Bloodhorse. “So we’re at the mercy of how all this evolves. We are planning options for the earliest possible relaunch.”

Maryland racing is heavily subsidized by casino revenues, which contribute 65 percent to 70 percent of the tracks’ average daily purses. In other words, no casinos, no subsidy.

“We definitely know we cannot throw the switch on and begin racing,” said David Richardson, executive director of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (MTHA).

The New York Racing Association intended to open Belmont Park April 24 and run the Belmont Stakes June 6. But the reopening date came and went with no racing, and date of the Belmont remains fluid. Martin Zapata, a backstretch worker at Belmont Park, died April 7 from Covid-19, one of at least 20 workers at the track who tested positive for the virus.

The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, is still scheduled to run at its delayed date of September 5, and the Preakness at Pimlico, has been postponed with no new date announced.

“The health and safety of our racing community is paramount, and adjustments to the racing schedule and operations must reflect that priority,” said MTHA CEO and President Dave O’Rourke. “We are committed to running the Belmont Stakes in 2020 and aim to deliver an announcement in the very near future.”

Linda Rice, a leading trainer at the shortened Aqueduct Racetrack winter meet, has her fingers crossed that racing can resume by early June at the latest. “For the horse people, these are stressful times. We all know someone who is suffering from the virus, but we also feel fortunate that we can train horses and get out of the house and be out in the sunshine and fresh air,” she said.

Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has no racing at all at its six tracks.

“I think they should try and open racing on a limited basis without people in the stands,” John Egloff, a member of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission recently told PlayPennsylvania.com.

Presque Isle Downs in Erie still clings to the hope that live racing can return May 11.

“We understand how trying the impact of this decision is on our horsemen, but we will work with public health experts toward a satisfactory resolution so horses can return safely as soon as possible,” said track Vice President and General Manager Kevin O’Sullivan.

New Mexico Racing Commission chairwoman Beverly Bourguet told the Associated Press the agency will see what’s worked and what hasn’t at tracks that have continued racing without spectators.

“We’re in uncharted territory and not knowing how long we need to prioritize the health and safety of our people to combat this pandemic,” she said.

Egloff said racing would bring in gambling revenue quicker than through casinos. The social distancing challenge is far less of an issue than dealing with keeping separation inside a casino, he said.

“It is the governor’s decision. But I do think the governor needs to consider this.”

Meanwhile, the bettors who willingly wager on ping pong are more than happy to gamble on the ponies. According to the AP, viewership on Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2, TVG, and the NBC Sports Network, which cover racing days, is up 206 percent from the same period last year.

Articles by Author: Bill Sokolic

Bill Sokolic is a veteran journalist who has covered gaming and tourism for more than 25 years as a staff writer and freelancer with various publications and wire services. He's also written stories for news, entertainment, features, and business. He co-authored Atlantic City Revisited, a pictorial history of the resort.