Horse Racing

Why the long face? Horse racing – and betting – continues without fans amid coronavirus pandemic

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Although the coronavirus crisis has sidelined most sports, horse racing, the sport of kings, continues to gallop across North America, even though it’s giving itself the silent treatment with empty grandstands and clubhouses.

In Ohio, as well as at tracks in Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana and California, fans are locked out, with only personnel essential to conducting pari-mutuel racing permitted on the grounds.

But the show — and the wagering — goes on. Races were run day and night Wednesday at both Mahoning Valley Race Course, the afternoon thoroughbred track in Youngstown, and at Northfield Park, the suburban nighttime Cleveland harness oval in Northfield.

“This is a day-to-day situation,” said Scott Borgemenke, chairman of the Ohio State Racing Commission. “Racing is an outdoor activity. It’s safe ue to social distancing. It’s the key to this. As long as we maintain social distancing, do things right, we’ll continue. Do it wrong and we’ll shut it down.”

Racing on the New York circuit was scheduled to resume Friday at Aqueduct, but was canceled indefinitely when a backstretch worker at nearby Belmont Park tested positive Thursday morning for the coronavirus. He had been quarantined since March 13.

At Northfield, 14 races were completed without a hitch Wednesday. A 15-race card is scheduled for Saturday night.

“We are following the executive orders of Gov. Mike DeWine along with guidelines from the Ohio State Racing Commission,” said Brent Reitz, Northfield’s vice president and general manager of racing. “So far, the programs are working smoothly.”

Mark Loewe, vice-president of racing at Mahoning Valley, patrols the track grounds during racing hours. He finds the current atmosphere unsettling.

“It’s kind of quiet,” he said. “These are crazy times.”

Veteran jockey Terry Houghton, a regular at Mahoning Valley Race Course, is hopeful the Youngstown oval can continue to race.

“So far, so good,” he said. “All the riders have their temperature taken as soon we enter the jocks’ room. I hope we keep racing, but I know that as soon as one guy comes down with the virus, we’re done. So, if a rider feels sick, I hope he knows to stay home.”

As for racing without fans in the stands or on the apron, Houghton said he doesn’t see much of a difference than when the gates are open.

“That’s because we are a wintertime track,” he said. “There aren’t that many fans outside because of the cold. But it would be a shock to be riding at Oaklawn Park (in Arkansas) where they get crowds of 40,000 on weekends.”

Gary Johnson, one of the winningest trainers in Ohio thoroughbred history, has 54 horses in his care, stabled at Mahoning Valley and Tampa Bay Downs in Florida.

“It’s been business as usual for me and I hope it keeps going that way,” he said. “As for the horses, we can’t work from home. We show up early and feed and train our stables.”

Mahoning Valley is scheduled to race through April 18, followed by a 100 days of racing at Thistledown in North Randall starting April 27.

“The barn area is scheduled to open for set-up next Wednesday,” said Johnson. “We can move horses in Thursday and start training on Friday.”

With tracks locked tight, where and how are horseplayers betting?

On their phones and computer screens.

“Sign-ups are up over 100 percent when compared to the same week last year,” said Bill Murphy, vice-president of player development for Xpressbet, one of the big three wagering platforms along with Twinspires and TVG.

Betting and watching races away from the track began with the introduction of smartphones more than a decade ago.

Railbirds can not only bet and view races in high definition on their phones, they can deposit or withdraw funds by simply linking the agering platform to their bank accounts.

The purse money that horsemen race in Ohio is created by not only money wagered on the races, but also from a share of video lottery terminal profits at the state’s seven tracks.

Eventually, the purses could be negatively impacted if the VLT’s remain unplugged behind locked racino doors.

The Daily Racing Form, the statistical bible of horseplayers, has a message for sports fans: “With most other North American sports being shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, we hope the sport of horse racing can entertain you during these trying times.”

The message is followed by a list of the 11 tracks that are racing, including Mahoning Valley and Northfield Park.

Meanwhile, NBCSN and Fox Sports have turned to racing to fill hours of programming. TVG, a full-time horse racing cable television station, offers live coverage seven days a week from mid-morning to midnight.

Read more coronavirus coverage:

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