While there is plenty of Thoroughbred racing taking place across the country, the opportunities to watch it live are in short supply. Ellis Park, in western Kentucky, started its summer stand July 2 with limited spectators—one has to purchase a seat in advance and provide a phone number for potential contact tracing in the COVID-19 era. Management is capping attendance at 400-450 per day.
We made the journey July 3 and found there was more than ample room to social distance in and around the small grandstand near the banks of the Ohio River. A few owners venturing over to the fence of the paddock were shooed back to the expanse of the apron.
Ellis Park, like most other summer tracks, has a robust 2-year-old program. On our visit we witnessed Southern Equine Stable’s homebred Ava’s Grace take a five-furlong maiden special weight race, delivering an all-important first win for first-crop sire Laoban. Sariah Sariah, by Tonalist, was second, followed by Zebra Cake, a filly by first-crop sire Runhappy, whose connections are sponsoring the entire meet.
Two-year-old racing has been slow from the gate in 2020, which is some cause for concern. As a result of the pandemic, things came to a near halt in early spring, a key time for developing 2-year-olds, as well as for 2-year-old sales. The juvenile auction slate was shifted to the summer, as the Ocala Breeders’ Sales outfit held its spring sale in June and the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic auction concluded June 30.
Call it the COVID crop of 2020.
Without a Keeneland meet and with the first weeks of the Churchill Downs meet KO’d, juvenile racing in Kentucky has stumbled at the start. Disagreements between horsemen and The Stronach Group regarding the use of Lasix have 2-year-old racing at Laurel on hold.
According to The Jockey Club figures, from Jan. 1 to July 5, 306 races for 2-year-olds were run in North America (excluding Puerto Rico) in 2017. The figure was 324 in 2018 and 333 in 2019. The number of races in 2020 was 161.
“There has just been so much uncertainty,” said Ellis Park racing secretary Dan Bork. “I pretty much try to write one (for the condition book) every day at different distances, surfaces: long, short, dirt, turf. I think there are quite a few people who are a little bit behind where their 2-year-olds normally are for obvious reasons. I don’t believe there are that many that are ready to go.”
Juvenile races in Kentucky for 2020 are being run without Lasix. Bork is doubtful that is an issue, but he has heard plenty from both sides.
“I’ve heard a few rumblings here and there…I don’t claim to be a trainer or a veterinarian, so I can’t comment on things,” he said diplomatically. “I respect everybody’s opinion. It’s a tough
Trainer William “Buff” Bradley, an Ellis mainstay, is a proponent of Lasix but doesn’t see the medication issue as an excuse for fewer 2-year-olds being ready to run.
“It’s because of the pandemic—people slowed down,” Bradley said. “I’m just now getting my horses back. I took everything to the farm after New Orleans (Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots meet closed March 21). I’m just now starting to gear back up.
“I don’t know everybody’s feeling on things, but I’ve always been a big fan of Lasix,” he said. “People say, ‘They’re 2-year-olds; they don’t need it.’ That’s when they are starting to come around and stress. We use it in the mornings when we breeze them, and you don’t want them to start bleeding—ever. I don’t have many 2-year-olds. I’ll have a few runners, but I’m not going to like not being able to use Lasix.”
Playing in Ellis’ favor for 2-year-old racing is the main track, considered a good surface, and a turf course that provides more options. Bork and his team are thrilled to have a new track super—Javier Barajas—at the helm, replacing trackman Glenn Thompson who groomed the surface for nearly 70 years.
“Our first four races of the book filled,” Bork reported. “I’ve put in a couple more than I usually do and, hopefully, if I see a lot of the 2-year-olds getting ready, and I start getting some requests, I might split some races to get them caught up.”