Day At The Track

Meadows horsemen waiting out shutdown

06:04 AM 31 Mar 2020 NZDT
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Ron Burke, harness racing
Trainer Ron Burke says harness racing could return to normal operations faster than other sports industries. Horsemen at The Meadows are awaiting word from state officials on when racing can resume.

Harness Racing was halted about two weeks ago at The Meadows, shut down because of social-distancing measures and the threat of coronavirus.

But horses need to exercise, and it takes humans to train them and care for them. That continues at The Meadows and all over the country.

The lack of competitive racing also threatens stakes racing and the big-money purses that go with it. The Meadows is no exception.

While stakes racing isn’t scheduled until the Pennsylvania Sire Stake series starts May 2 at the North Strabane Township track, other events such as the Currier & Ives for 3-year-old pacing fillies (May 22) and for pacing colts (June 20) also are in question.

The Adios eliminations are scheduled for July 25 with the final set for Aug. 1.

Until further notice, racing has been limited to one harness track in the country, Cal-Expo in Sacramento, Calif. The California Horse Racing Board approved the track to begin racing last Friday. Racing will be held there Tuesdays and Wednesdays through April 22.

The Meadows’ return to racing might be determined by the reopening of the casino and return to work by state employees because race judges are employees of the state. Races cannot be contested without judges.

For now, keeping horses active and their handlers healthy is a main objective.

“Most days, (horses) are coming out and exercising,” said Ron Burke, the top trainer in the world. “We’ve turned some out, so they are put in paddocks. But there’s not enough paddocks for all the horses.

“The horses have to come out and either jog lightly or some days they go closer to race speed. So, when races pick up, they are fit and ready to go. Basically, with a barn bigger like ours, we’re able to simulate races.”

Jim King, Jr., one of the top trainers in the country, has his horses at his farm in Delaware. He has a number of stakes-eligible horses.

He’s attempting to strike a balance.

“It kind of changes every day,” said King. “We don’t know what is going on ourselves. There is no change in what we do with the horses.

Jim King, Jr.

“I had a half-dozen ready to qualify. In fact, I dropped them into qualifiers, but they didn’t draw in. They were that close. A couple more were a few weeks away. I had to finish getting them ready and once they are ready, I’ll back off. My other horses will keep going with an abbreviated schedule. They’re jogging, not as far as usual and only training once a week.”

Dirk Simpson, who owns a significant stable of horses at The Meadows, said horsemen have been through racing lulls in the past, pointing to planned weeks off and a layoff in 2018 because of a deadly virus.

Racing at The Meadows was shut down for more than one month early in 2018 because the virus was contracted by a handful of horses in late January.

“The first week, it’s just kind of normal business,” Simpson said. “We’ve been down before. You think it’s OK and things are going to be the normal. We’ve survived it before.

“Now, we’re into two weeks and there is no sign of racing. I’m thinking, my own personal point of view is that at some point the state will open it back up. We can operate with a small group of people. The governor will eventually allow (state employees) to go back to work.

Dirk Simpson

“I’m trying to be optimistic. Two years ago, we were shut down a month and my barn was hit hard. We just weathered through it. You get 60 days; it’s a totally different thing to tackle. If this goes longer than three weeks, it would be a hardship – first the smaller stables and then the larger stables. It’s scary right now. I’m staying as positive as I can.”

Neither Burke, King nor Simpson have laid off any workers. None has reported anyone who has become ill with the virus.

The entire harness racing industry is looking forward to getting back on the track.

“We need the end date,” Burke said. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near finding the end date.

“We’re trying to keep people from congregating and they’re good at it. It’s not like we have cubicles we’re sitting in to watch our horses. Once on the track, those horses keep you separate.”

Burke is stressing to employees to maintain social distancing, washing their hands and staying healthy.

“We need to stay healthy because the horses need us to take care of them,” he said.

King has 3-year-old filly pacer, Lyons Sentinel, who’s coming out party came at The Meadows, to be concerned with. Lyons Sentinel won nearly $900,000 as a 2-year-old.

“She was a little behind most of them (his other horses) anyway,” King said. “She’s training but nowhere near. … She’s six weeks from qualifying anywhere. I have to keep the horses moving, not race read but moving enough so I can have them race-ready in 10 days.”

Burke thinks the harness racing industry could return faster to close to normal operations than other industries.

“It could be done under any system they want, 40 to 50 people,” Burke said. “Horses have to exercise anyhow. There are ways. It would take some adjustments. The way we prepare, you’d have to cut the number (of people) and change the way you go to the paddock. You could put the horses together and we could separate people.

“We should be able to get back about the quickest of any industry. We don’t need interaction. People can bet from their phone and on computers. I have a little hope for whatever social-distancing requirements there are, we can manage it.”

Reprinted with permission of The Observer-Reporter

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