In many respects it seems as if the “year of COVID” has lasted a lot longer than 12 months. A year ago we couldn’t find much on the shelves of the local grocery store, especially paper products. Swiss Skydiver had yet to defeat stakes company. Bob Baffert had just five Kentucky Derby (G1) wins.
While we herald the fact racing was able to continue in some jurisdictions during the early lock-down phase of the pandemic battle and that the ability to wager remotely via advance deposit wagering is part of our success story, Thoroughbred racing remains a tough business. The number of races, race days, and overall purses lost has forced most horsemen to adapt to new business practices. However, the sport has always been a survive-and-advance kind of game.
Now that multiple vaccines are being administered nationwide, things are hopefully on the verge of reopening. Spring race meets here in Kentucky—Keeneland and Churchill Downs—will have more than just “owners only” in attendance. The Belmont spring meet that begins in late April seemingly has some new life. A limited number of fans returned to Hot Springs, Ark., over the weekend to see Concert Tour win the Rebel Stakes (G2) and last year’s Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner Shedaresthedevil score in the Azeri Stakes.
Purses, the most important measuring stick of racing’s health, fell a year ago amid COVID-19 uncertainty. In addition, quarantine issues kept a large number of 2-year-olds at training centers with no tracks to transition to. The “supply chain” of 2-year-olds and races for them were disrupted over the summer and fall of 2020.
Well, for a sizable portion of the racing product at the higher-end venues in North America, it’s no better time than now to be a maiden. A handful of racing secretaries are dangling some sizable carrots.
At Oaklawn on the Rebel undercard, the racing office ran three maiden special weight races, all worth $93,000, including one for Arkansas-breds.
Keeneland’s tradition-rich—and purse-rich—spring stand begins April 2. On tap for the opening few programs are maiden special weight races for 3-year-olds and up for $79,000 (includes Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund money).
Churchill Downs takes the baton at the close of the Keeneland meet April 23, and the very first race in Churchill’s 2021 spring condition book is a maiden special weight for fillies and mares, 3-year-olds and up worth $106,000 (including KTDF money). We understand that is a special “Derby Week” portion of the meet, but later in the month maidens will run for $91,000.
Several days ago BloodHorse reported that during the Belmont meet the top end will feature $90,000 maiden special weight races and allowance races that begin at $92,000. Last summer—with an uncertain future and cash flow squeezed by the closure of casinos in the state—maiden special weight races were worth $63,000 and allowance races going with a $65,000 purse.
Of course, these examples are at the upper tier of tracks that are presently in a very competitive marketplace for horses during the spring/early summer. In Southern California, the highly touted Triple Tap broke his maiden March 13 in a maiden race worth $61,000, and on the same day Gulfstream Park ran a maiden special weight for $55,000. Mahoning Valley Race Course’s maiden special weight race on the same day was worth $27,500, and our friends at Fonner Park in Nebraska, the darling during the early stages of the shutdown, ran a maiden special weight for $7,200.
There has always been a chasm between the haves and the have-nots among racing jurisdictions. The same is true in the real world. COVID-19 has probably made that chasm wider and helped to accelerate some business sectors while others face reinventing the wheel. We have little control over that, but realize racing types know how to follow the money.
As spring arrives in 2021, there appears to be new hope, a reawakening. Things will never be “normal” again in the 2019 sense, but with sizable purses returning, we’ll be able to carve out a new path.