Day At The Track

Pompano to Tioga and back during pandemic

02:21 AM 18 Dec 2020 NZDT
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Gabe Prewitt and driver Wally Hennessey
Pompano Park's Gabe Prewitt and driver Wally Hennessey
Dee Leftwich Photo

Harness racing, at its very core, is a career that follows a routine pattern, but at the same time, follows no routine at all. In other words, the everyday routine of each stable is set through a similar schedule – morning feed, stalls, buckets, watering, jogging or training, bathing, lunch, and dinner.

Now these schedules vary from stable to stable. Everything from how far a horse is jogged to how much they are fed to how many buckets of water each horse has can be different. But, the routine of a single stable changes as anything can happen in the barn. Horses get sick, pop a gravel, get mysterious injuries, and more.

Most horse people at Tioga Downs share a similar routine in the sense of travel. We follow a schedule like birds in the winter. From October to May, we all find ourselves in South Florida at the Winter Capital of Harness Racing, Pompano Park.

Only about three Tioga Downs stables remain north during this time. Then, as spring comes to an end and summer begins, we migrate north. All of our horses and necessities to run a stable are jam packed into several trailers headed for a final destination of Nichols, New York. Some trainers ship their own horses, some hire shippers, and others with large stables do a mix of the two.

Usually, we race until at least the end of April or beginning of May. That is a part of our routine to follow a racing schedule that doesn’t change from year to year. Or, that’s how it was until this year.

This year has been full of surprises, surprises that not even the uncertain harness racing business or even the best handicapper could have predicted. We are used to our horses presenting us with some sort of unusual case; whether it is one of those mysterious injuries or some strange cause of injury. Yet, we are not used to having our entire business shut down in the blink of an eye.

March 11th – the last race day of the 2019-2020 race season at Pompano Park. Horses entered in the box for that following Thursday, Sunday, and Monday were unable to race. Now what? A question that breezed through the minds of every horseman on that track. Everyone was about to feel the effects of this shut down, including stables of only one horse to stables of over forty head. We had no idea how long it was going to last and if we would race again at Pompano.

The shutdown caused a ripple effect that affected everyone on and off the track – trainers, drivers, owners, grooms, veterinarians, and blacksmiths as well as the companies that provide hay, grain, and sawdust.

“As an equine vet with my own practice, it shut my business down,” Dr. Michelle MacDougall said. “There was a money crunch on all owners and trainers that prevented them from doing elective vet procedures.”

Owner-trainer-driver Mike Deters said, “It was a tremendous financial burden. Nothing changed in the fact that my grooms made the same amount and my feed bill still came in, but there was no income coming in.”

Debbie Gagnon, groom for Mike Deters, said, “we were afraid of how long we would be there. We cut back on treating horses which affected how they are racing now. It was a scary situation to be on hold for so long. Trainers were afraid to do anything.”

“Everything was on hold. Everyone is scared for travel or flying, but I have to for my job – from Fort Lauderdale to Pocono and back,” Blacksmith Mike Cable said. “I had a fear for my family. I was traveling in and out of state and in and out of our house. Unfortunately, COVID-19 grabbed my mom and took her life on April 19th. I was quarantined during the first week of April due to traveling for work. I wasn’t able to go to the track to shoe horses and I lost work.

“It made life harder for everyone,” Cable continued. “My wife was worried. She could not and did not sleep. She and many others stay home.”

Despite the uncertainty of racing and life in general, horsemen also saw the positive side of everything.

“We have our own safe and protected community where we were able to keep track of ourselves. We were mentally thinking differently and we now carry our mask in our pocket every day, but we are very fortunate that our [Pompano Park-Tioga] horsemen community is without cases,” owner-trainer-driver Jim McDonald stated.

McDonald’s groom, Jim Hogan, said, “I am a groom that is fortunate enough that my trainer kept me employed.”

Owner Laurie Poulin said, “I am thankful that the government has helped us out in any way that they could.”

Fast forward to mid-May and we are on the road to Tioga Downs. It had been two months since our last start. Yet, most every stable on the grounds was still jogging and training, prepared for if we did see an opening date again. Sadly, it never came.

“It’s like baking a cake. Every day we bake the cake – we train and jog. We buy the supplies to bake the cake – we still have to feed and support the horses. But, at the end of the day, since there is no racing it is as if we throw the cake away. And then, we get up the next day and do it all over again,” trainer Michelle Hallett says.

Once we got to Tioga Downs, we set up our barn and prepared to “bake the cake” again. This time with a bit more confidence that we would be racing again. Several stables remained in Florida, though.

The board of directors and head of racing at Tioga Downs held a mandatory track meeting. If you wanted to race or even be in the paddock, you had to attend – grooms, trainers, and some drivers attended. This meeting focused on proper hygiene and guidelines set by the CDC for COVID-19, such as masks and social distancing.

Masks are mandatory in the paddock and there is a system set up to maintain social distancing. At this point, we were all willing to do anything to make up for the months of lost racing time. We signed a sheet that acknowledged we attended and understood the new guidelines for racing.

Masked driver Jim Meittinis at Tioga Downs

June 1st – Our first Tioga Downs qualifier and our second time we have been able to race since the shutdown. The one other time was May 14th for a qualifying day generously approved by Pompano Park and organized by a joint effort of the Florida Amateur Driving Club (FADC) and the Florida Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association (FSBOA).

We accomplished this by qualifying out of our barns. When it was time for our race, we walked the horse up, hooked them in the bike if they didn’t already have one on, and lead them to the track through the chute.

“Putting on my colors again to drive in the qualifiers at Pompano and Tioga Downs was like Christmas morning,” driver Wally Hennessey said.

Things were finally starting to feel as a sense of normal again.

“It was good to get in the bike again. We are all race junkies and so, yes, the best way to describe it is like it was Christmas morning. At Gilcrest, we kept qualifiers all the time and moved the post times around to give hope to the horsemen. The biggest challenge was the mental stress caused by the unknown,” Gilcrest association President and horseman Verlin Yoder said.

Left to right driver Scott Zeron, NYSS head M. Kelly Young and Brett Risi, Operations Manager at Tioga and Vernon Downs.

Tioga Downs association President and horseman Guy Howard said, “Our association stepped up. Board members were cleaning the bathrooms and driver’s room, we paid for manure removal, and we helped in getting the track done. Ronnie Morales got the track done in the mornings during the weekend and I did it in the afternoon. It was a team effort to get the track [Tioga Downs] up and running, ready for the horsemen from Florida.”

June 7th – the first official race day in months for horsemen at Tioga Downs, opening day for the 2020 season. It was a four-race paddock set up, instead of the usual eight races. Every other stall was used to promote social distancing. Everyone wore a mask.

Even though everyone was wearing a mask, you could still see the smiles beneath, happy to be back doing what we all love.

Owner and trainer Maggie Audley said, “the strain of having to pay the same number of bills without any income was rough. Thankfully, Mr. Gural is a good friend of horseman and understood our plight. He got us back racing and for that, we are all very grateful.”

Throughout this summer and to today, our day-to-day lives are still impacted by COVID-19.

Horse racing in North America was fortunate that many tracks were able to reopen during the summer with no spectators while most every other professional sport was shut down.

Our race paddock at Tioga remained as a mandatory mask zone up to the final race day. We continued social distancing and the rules for the driver’s lounge were followed. The paddock was upgraded from a four-race to a six-race paddock.

After the meet ended at Tioga Downs, horsemen traveled to other tracks to race. Pompano Park opened its doors on October 1st for the 2020-2021 race meet. One by one, horsemen pulled out and made the journey south. By November 1st, the track was over half full.

Stables were put back together with harness bags hanging and trunks out front. Everyone was ready for a fresh start at Pompano Park since the abrupt shut down in March. The first few stakes races came first. Due to unforeseen circumstances, opening day was postponed to November 15th.

Eldorado’s Vice President of Racing Joe Morris and Pompano Director of Racing Gabe Prewitt have successfully composed our 2020-2021 race season with full race cards and the inclusion of fans, horsemen, and bettors.

Race officials at Pompano Park have handled the safety guidelines for operating during the pandemic in a similar manner to Tioga Downs. We are currently racing in a four-race paddock with masks and social distancing.

We are hopeful to fulfill our full season; but, unfortunately, we are still experiencing the fears of the unknown due to COVID-19 and the hopes that the new vaccine will bring an end to it all.

The pandemic is one race that horsemen cannot wait to end. A race that will hopefully leave most everyone as winners, horsemen and fans alike.

By Jessica Hallett, for Harnesslink

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