Back On Track - By Evan Hammonds

Thoroughbred racing has been able to endure during the current pandemic—in pockets of the country at least—which is something most other sports have been unable to do. The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League’s 2019-20 seasons remain on hold; Major League Baseball is a long way from opening day; and while the National Football League started its ballyhooed draft April 23, we think it is kidding itself believing games will get underway as normal in mid-September.

Horse racing from Florida, Arkansas, and even Oklahoma and Nebraska have taken center stage. Fox Sports 1 and 2 have been broadcasting racing on weekend afternoons and, according to Reuters, have seen their TV audience rise 206% from the same period last year.

Empty grandstands offer plenty of space to reconfigure the traditional tight jockeys’ quarters, and social distancing is possible in about every area other than the starting gate. Safety protocols for horses, horsemen, and jockeys appear to be working.

May 2 is slated to be the closing day for Oaklawn Park, the key Midwest racing hub at this time of year. Churchill Downs was to open in late April, but officials have twice pushed back the opening of its stable area—for good reason we might add—and are hopeful to open May 5. Should that date hold true, the track could resume racing (without patrons of course) in two weeks.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has become a national figure with his crisis management skills. Quick on the trigger to “close” the state early in March in order to flatten the curve, the COVID-19 figures in the Bluegrass state are among the best in the country. The “healthy at home” plan has worked, and we are thankful for that. We are also thankful that breeding farms have remained open, and are following proper and sound guidance. They have been able to conduct business as close to “normal” as possible.

Beshear has had talks with Churchill Downs officials, but has not offered a timeline to allow the track to open. However, with the right rules in place, is appears now is the time to allow racing to return under the Twin Spires.

“If they could open the stable area next week and open for racing the following week, that would be ideal,” said state senator Damon Thayer. “Normally after the Derby they race four days a week, but maybe they could get into a five-day a week schedule because there is not going to be a shortage of horses.

“I’ve been told there are more than 1,000 race-ready horses in Kentucky among Turfway Park, Keeneland, the training centers in Lexington, and the training centers in Oldham County,” Thayer continued. “And then when you start allowing in the horses from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Florida…we are going to be bursting at the seams.

“I’m watching Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream and Oaklawn. They’ve been doing it without interruption. I hope the governor doesn’t provide any more road blocks to get racing going.”

While it is time to get horses back in the starting gate in Louisville, we can’t expect the purse levels to be maintained at 2019 levels. The spike in purses in Kentucky last year came courtesy of the historical horse racing machines, which are now closed. Casinos, off-track betting facilities, and the like will be among the later entities to come online as restrictions ease.

“Everybody knows until the HHR machines get going again that purses are going to be lower than they were last year,” Thayer said. “I’m not sure what Churchill’s purse account is, but I know it’s probably lower than they want it to be because they sent a lot of money to Turfway to prop up purses there during the winter.”

Churchill Downs purchased Turfway Park last year and funneled a significant amount of money to the purses, drawing on projected activity for a non-COVID-19 2020.

“But I think the purse levels will be good,” Thayer said. “I think everybody just wants to get back to racing. Everybody understands live racing is the first step and HHR will be later.”

We all want to return to “normal,” whatever that is these days. Other jurisdictions have proved that racing can be run safely. The Kentucky state government has been doing all the right things for the last two months, and we’re hopeful it will continue to do so. Allowing Churchill Downs to get back to business is the next step.

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