June 6 is a historic day in the history of the United States, with Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day commencing that day on the beaches of Normandy in 1944. While it pales in comparison, June 6, 2020, was an important day in Thoroughbred racing. Starting in mid-March, the COVID-19 closings nearly KO’d the sport, and on the first Saturday in June the New York Racing Association, Churchill Downs, and Santa Anita Park all presented graded stakes action.
Of course, the racing took place without spectators…and without owners. Caught in the clampdown on licensed personnel roaming racetracks, owners have been excluded from watching their horses run. Over the weekend it was announced that owners will be able to stand under the Twin Spires to watch their runners (two people, one of which must be a Kentucky Horse Racing Commission licensed owner with a horse racing that day). The rules in New York—where the pandemic has struck the hardest—and California will likely remain tighter for the foreseeable future.
It’s a tough gig. Owners, who in good times play a losing game with purses vs. expenses, have been slammed harder during the pandemic. Despite a paucity of racing compared with past springs and summers, owners are still on the hook for expenses. Equibase’s Thoroughbred Economic Indicators for May 2020 show promising handle figures, with wagering down only 30.16% from a year ago with 70.99% less racing (with NYRA’s return, expect further improvement in June). While handle is a beacon of hope, purses are down, of course, due to the number of races and race days: 72.39% for the month and 40.6% for the year to date—more than $175 million.
That is a lot of lost revenue. The least an owner should be able to do is social distance on the track apron. We are all aware there is plenty of room.
Peter Callahan, owner of Swiss Skydiver, winner of the June 6 Santa Anita Oaks (G2), watched from his home in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“I think I blew up my telephone…I’ll have to get a new one,” Callahan said the following morning. “It’s terrible. My girl has won three graded races, and I haven’t been to one of them. I managed to see the ones when she finished fifth at Tampa Bay Downs (Jan. 18 Gasparilla Stakes) and third in New Orleans (Feb. 15 Rachel Alexandra Stakes Presented by Fasig-Tipton, G2, at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots), then the shut-down came. I enjoy going on those excursions and bringing a lot of family and a few friends with me, but we basically ‘Zoomed’ (video conference) yesterday. I’m not a high-tech guy, so that doesn’t get me real excited.”
Callahan, 78, has a few horses other than the multiple graded winner Swiss Skydiver in training with Kenny McPeek. He’s anxious to see her and some of his other runners.
“It’s the time of year when I leave West Palm Beach and go to New York. I’m about to get rolling in New York. I’ve been threatening to borrow a maintenance worker’s uniform and climb the fence or something to participate, maybe get into the winner’s circle, and then give the uniform back. Back in my early days I might have tried a stunt like that. That goes to show you how frustrated things are and what guys like me would resort to. More than making any money, we want to have fun.
“When a horse like Swiss Skydiver wins the way she’s been winning, I tell McPeek all of the time, ‘You don’t know how much of a smile, and how deep a smile, it puts on a 78-year-old guy who has some serious medical issues.’ And I mean it. When you are there in person…it’s a great elixir.”
Since the COVID-19 situation struck, Swiss Skydiver has earned $475,320, which more than helps the bottom line. However, Callahan has plenty of skin in the game and has concerns for the remainder of the year.
“If not for the checks coming in thanks to Swiss Skydiver, yes, it would be a pain. Most of the money that I spend in the Thoroughbred industry is on the breeding side, and we don’t know yet what the damage is going to be with the yearling sales coming up in September,” he said. “I’m holding my breath. We have 10 nice candidates for the sales, and I don’t know if they will be unchanged, or off 10%, or off 20%, or maybe even off 30%.
“We don’t know. When you have 12 mares and you go to auction with 10 or 11 babies, it’s painful to look at the possibility that we might have to take a half-dozen of them home because we can’t get them sold, at even a discounted price. I’m very apprehensive about it.”