Day At The Track

Meadows ready to race as shutdown ends

05:25 AM 05 May 2020 NZST
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Southwind Ozzi, harness racing
Brian Sears drives Southwind Ozzi to win the Adios at The Meadows Racetrack July 27.
Celeste Van Kirk Photo

The Meadows, as all racetracks in Pennsylvania, has been dark since mid-March due to the state’s COVID-19 shutdown order. How quickly could horses and horsemen resume harness racing once the track is permitted to reopen – with or without spectators?

Says The Meadows-based horseman Gary Johnston: “My horses are ready to drop in the box tomorrow.”

Johnston’s schedule for a return to racing is only slightly optimistic, and that’s the advantage harness racing has over other sports whose seasons have been suspended. While those other athletes may need time to work themselves into shape, Standardbreds have continued to work right through the COVID-19 lockdown, although they haven’t been asked for peak performances.

Moreover, other sports trying to resume may have rescheduling headaches. While The Meadows and other tracks might need to reschedule some stakes races, for the most part, they can pick up where they left off. And since The Meadows Casino & Racetrack live-streams its races on its Website, fans would have instant access. The Meadows Standardbred Owners Association (MSOA) is exploring possibilities for expanding that access, including partnership with a broadcast TV station.

For Standardbred owners, trainers and their staff and drivers, the lockdown has been tough financially – expenses have continued, revenue hasn’t. The state also has suffered financially, losing its share of commissions on handle, a considerable sum over the course of a year.

Johnston, who trains his 12 horses at the Butler County Fairgrounds about 60 miles north of The Meadows, relies on family for help, so he hasn’t had to lay off anyone. He gave his owners a discount on their bills to encourage them to keep their horses in training. And he and fellow Butler County trainers got a break themselves when the Butler Fair Board reduced stall rental fees.

“It was small, but it helps,” he says.

Johnston has been giving his horses what he calls “doubleheaders” – back-to-back training trips in jog carts so they stay sharp without overdoing it.

“They see the field, the exerciser and the track,” Johnston says. “They don’t miss a day. That’s true of everybody at the fairgrounds. We have to get faster miles into them. If they

say we can race at the end of May, we’ll ship down to The Meadows and go those fast miles.”

Much the same is happening at The Meadows where, with financial support from MSOA, the track has kept its backside open for the resident equine population. Trainer Dirk Simpson has taken advantage of the opportunity to give his 27 horses the same doubleheaders Johnston’s are logging.

“They do their normal jogging, their doubleheaders and after that pasture time, weather permitting,” Simpson says. “We get them out every day. No fast miles, although I’ve seen some do it.”

Simpson hasn’t laid off any staff, although he’s not hiring as many gig workers to help with jogging. He offered owners a “slight break” on their training fees. Still, he lost three horses when their owners opted to turn them out and avoid training bills entirely.

Even if tracks in other states reopen before The Meadows does, Simpson intends to keep his horses right where they are.

“If you give us 10 days, we would have time for a couple fast works,” he says. “I think my barn would be competitive off that.”

By Celeste Van Kirk

Reprinted with permission of The Observer-Reporter

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