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Horse racing continues even when everything else has shut down

The sport of kings rides alone in the wide world of sports.

Since the coronavirus outbreak arrived causing cancellations of  professional, college and high school sports, horse racing has continued to run races at racetracks from coast to coast but without spectators.

Saturday, the Louisiana Derby likely will be the only live sporting event to be televised on a weekend that would have been saturated with March Madness and significant pro hockey and basketball games.

The Louisiana Derby, a 100-point Kentucky Derby qualifying race, is scheduled to go to post at 5:49 p.m. EDT at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans.

Even though racetracks are operating, the sport has not been immune to the virus, evidenced by this week’s announcement of the postponement of the Kentucky Derby until September. It will be the first time in 75 years that the Derby will not be held on the first Saturday in May.

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton was representing Bill Parcells and Rebel Stakes entrant Three Technique at Oaklawn Park last weekend. He was interviewed in the winner’s circle and presented the trophy for the Azeri Stakes. Just five days later, he tested positive for coronavirus.

Trainer Tom Amoss, who was in the winner's circle with Payton, announced that he would self-quarantine for 14 days after Payton announced his positive test.

On Friday, Oaklawn announced it will close its casino to the public, but will continue to race without spectators. In addition, the meet's signature race, the Arkansas Derby has been moved from April 11 to May 2.

Closed to the public since March 12, California-based Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields have been working with the governor’s office to determine if they can continue racing after the governor issued a statewide order to stay home effective Thursday night.

At Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla., the track said it had suspended racing Friday to implement additional safety measures to limit exposure and introduce new protocols for controlled access  to certain areas, including the Jockeys’ Room. Gulfstream planned to reopen Saturday.

One of Gulfstream’s premier riders, Eclipse winning jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., announced via Twitter that he would stop riding because of the outbreak. He was scheduled to ride Portos for trainer Todd Pletcher in the Louisiana Derby. “This is the safest decision for my family and myself. Hopefully we can all make it safely out of this quarantine sooner than later and get back to what we all love,” he tweeted Thursday.

If other jockeys start to follow suit – one other in the New York Racing Association (NYRA) stopped riding as of Thursday – pressure will start to mount on the racetracks to close.

On Thursday, the NYRA suspended racing at Aqueduct Racetrack until further notice after a backstretch worker who lives and works at Belmont Park tested positive for the virus after developing symptoms last Friday. The Grade 2 Wood Memorial, a key Derby point race, scheduled for April 4 is now in jeopardy.

Critics have been vocal that continuing to run could be considered reckless and further the spread of the virus. Racing went on for two days after the Aqueduct backstretch worker was quarantined last Friday.

While no fans are allowed to attend the races, a number of workers have to be present such as photographers, television personnel, racing office personnel, stewards and racing analysts.

One racing analyst, Joe Kristufek, who will be providing paddock commentary at the Fair Grounds on Louisiana Derby Day, provided some insight as to how he’s been dealing with the new normal at the racetrack.

“I’m trying to practice social distancing when I’m interviewing someone in the winner’s circle for the stakes,” he said. “I got a microphone up to their mouth, for me it’s my job. I don’t think I’ve been put in jeopardy at all.”

As for the lack of fans in the stands or on the apron, it’s been a changing environment at the Fair Grounds and at tracks around the country.

“It’s really weird in a way because all of the regulars that you see here day in and day out, you don’t see them here,” said Kristufek. “When you’re in the paddock, there’s still enough horseman and people to not make it seem like it’s an absolute ghost town. But when you go out on the apron where people are usually out there rooting for their horses and enjoying the sport from a spectator’s perspective, that’s where it hits you.”

Racing’s edge of not having fans present without taking a major economic blow, is its off-track revenue sources. “We do have the advantage of being the one sport that can at least sustain itself because of the simulcasting and the online racing,” he said.

With Aqueduct closing and the chance of more tracks who may follow suit, it is certainly worrisome for those whose livelihood comes from the races. “It’s scary for everybody," Kristufek said. "Keeneland’s closed; a lot of people here don’t know necessarily where they are going to go next.” 

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

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