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Horse racing grapples with risk of racing during coronavirus pandemic

Among the events still on: Saturday’s Louisiana Derby and the world’s richest day of races in Dubai in late March.
Horses run in the fourth race at Santa Anita Park in front of empty stands Saturday, March 14, 2020, in Arcadia, Calif. While most of the sports world is idled by the coronavirus pandemic, horse racing runs on. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Horses run in the fourth race at Santa Anita Park in front of empty stands Saturday, March 14, 2020, in Arcadia, Calif. While most of the sports world is idled by the coronavirus pandemic, horse racing runs on. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) [ MARK J. TERRILL | AP ]
Published Mar. 21, 2020

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Horse racing is quickly learning it is not totally immune to the effects the coronavirus pandemic has had on other sports, and now it’s grappling with the risks of continuing operations.

The Louisiana Derby as of Friday was still set for Saturday. The world’s richest day of races was scheduled to go on in late March in Dubai, and several tracks across the United States and worldwide remained open, including Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar, which was racing without fans.

But a worker in New York testing positive for the new coronavirus and shuttering a track, and jockeys growing reluctant to ride have put racing on edge.

“I think we’re living on borrowed time,” said trainer Tom Amoss, who put himself into self-quarantine this week after interacting with coronavirus-positive New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton at a track last weekend. “We’re one jockey away from getting a positive test or getting sick to close our track down.”

Following the lead of tracks in Japan and Hong Kong, many in the United States decided to close to the general public but keep running with only essential personnel. The Kentucky Derby has been postponed until fall, with the other Triple Crown races expected to follow. On Friday, Tampa Bay Downs canceled the Florida Cup, a series of six $110,000 stakes races for registered Florida-bred horses. The event, the track’s annual showcase for the state’s thoroughbred breeding and racing industries, had been scheduled for March 29.

But overall, with no NCAA basketball tournament and few other events going on, horse racing has been the only live sport to watch and gamble on in North America.

“If we can operate it and do it at a safe manner, it’s great, and it gives people something to do,” Preakness and Belmont-winning trainer Mark Casse said before the latest developments.

How safe remains a question. Prominent U.S.-based jockeys Irad Ortiz Jr., Luis Saez and Tyler Gaffalione each said they wouldn’t travel to Dubai because of coronavirus or quarantine fears, and Ortiz took it a step further by announcing he wouldn’t take any mounts right now.

“After a lot of consideration, I have decided to stop riding,” Ortiz posted 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.”

A backstretch worker at Belmont Park on Long Island tested positive Thursday for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and Aqueduct Racetrack suspended live racing indefinitely. Maryland’s Laurel Park announced it was “pausing” live racing, and Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach closed Friday with plans to reopen Saturday.

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Tracks are taking precautions such as temperature checks and limits on the number of people allowed in certain areas at a time. There’s a focus on protecting and caring for backstretch and stable workers who look after the horses, with dorm rooms available for isolation and ongoing communication with health officials, National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and CEO Alex Waldrop said.

“We have to be very careful that even in this circumstance, we’re not subjecting people to any undue risks,” Waldrop said. “If there is an outbreak of any sort, we’ll be on the lookout for that. That may change the situation. It’s a day-to-day situation. We’re doing our best to keep everyone safe.”

In recent days, with long-established online betting platforms, less reliance on fans at the track, plenty of television coverage and limited contact among people, it seemed possible for the sport to continue operating.

“We obviously don’t have as much to lose because we’ve done such a poor job of developing new fans, which would be the people that would come to the track,” Thoroughbred Idea Foundation founder Craig Bernick said. “So, frankly, if they’re not allowing fans on the racetrack, all of that (money wagered) should be protected because they weren’t coming anyway.”

The money had still been coming in. Over $17.5 million was bet on three days of racing at Aqueduct Park last weekend, up from the same weekend two years ago. Oaklawn Park in Arkansas reported $10.1 million wagered last Saturday on 11 races, and figures across the country were similarly strong even with tracks closed to the general public.

“Racing goes pretty much from noon until 9 or 10 at night, so not quite around the clock, but we’ve actually noticed a bigger uptick in business for the nighttime” races, said Ed DeRosa, marketing director for Bloodstock Research Information Services. “It’s pretty clear, to no surprise of anyone, that business is up, especially online because of racing being the only game in town.”

It’s also the only game on TV. On a weekend usually reserved for the NCAA Tournament, NBC Sports and Fox Sports are increasing coverage this weekend of major races going on from coast to coast, including the $1 million Louisiana Derby.

But things have changed, and horse racing is facing mounting obstacles that could halt everything in its tracks.

“I’m fully aware there’s a bigger issue here than whether we race horses in the immediate future or not,” Amoss said. “Our country’s health is first and foremost.”

Information from Times staff was used in this report.

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