RACING THROUGH THE CORONA PANDEMIC

By Julie Reardon

RACING THROUGH THE CORONA PANDEMIC

Time to put away the seltzers and wine coolers and break out the brown liquor. No, it’s not winter yet but a proper mint julep needs a fine whiskey and Kentucky Derby Day is September 5th this year. Originally planned to allow spectators, this is no longer the case so we’re watching on TV. Besides, there’s still the Preakness, rescheduled from the third Saturday in May this year to October 3. And it’s right down the road at Pimlico near Baltimore. Although there will be no infield party this year, at press time there were tickets available – will see if attendees are allowed the closer it gets to race time.

Normally held the first Saturday in May, the 146th Kentucky Derby was a victim of the corona virus pandemic and rather than cancel entirely, the decision was made to move it to the first Saturday in September at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Like the Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase traditionally held on the same day here in Virginia, quarantining and social distancing meant cancellations, postponing and changing race meets. Unlike so many other sports, however, horse people are nothing if not creative, so racing was able to find ways to continue to hold race meets, albeit scaled back to meet safety demands and without spectators or onsite public wagering. In fact, with the absence of so many live sporting events, horse racing was able to capture a larger share of the TV market on Fox Sports than it has ever had in recent years. According to a Fox sports executive in an interview with a racing trade publication, “I don’t think you can overstate [the importance of] live-event coverage,” said Michael Mulvihill, adding that Fox Sports had been able to do much more live coverage than it ever has before. Total viewing of racing in Belmont and Saratoga, he said, was up 300% over the same period last year, and that also contributed to an increase in handle per meet.

Churchill Downs was able to hold a live race meet in May and June, but because of the logistics of staging such a huge event as the Derby, management had to make a decision on that race day long before anyone knew if public gatherings would even be allowed, so it opted to postpone the Kentucky Derby until September. Arguably the best known horse race in the world, certainly in this country, the decision was made to move it to the Sept. 5th date well before anyone knew if live racing would be possible. And indeed, the track and several others were able to hold race meets by restricting spectators and fans—only owners, trainers, riders and staff were allowed on the track, and testing and quarantine protocols were set up for jockeys and staff. Fans could of course bet and watch their favorites on TV or live stream; they just couldn’t attend in person. Most of the online betting shops provide their customers access to live racing online or on TV as well.

Locally, the point to point season was almost completely shut down by the pandemic. Only a handful of the larger sanctioned race meets were able to stage their meets, and those lost money because they depend on admissions fees from fans and sponsorship from businesses for purses and operating money much more than the flat tracks since there is no parimutuel wagering. The biggest area race, the Virginia Gold Cup, was rescheduled from May 2nd to June 27th and run at Great Meadow in the Plains without spectators or wagering. And the locally popular Middleburg Spring Race meet, normally held on the third Saturday in April, was rescheduled and held without spectators on June 13th. A Middleburg Spring Race meet fan lamented not being able to attend this year. “It was their 100-year anniversary,” she said. “All kinds of parties and special commemorative events that were planned had to be canceled.” The most popular fall meet here, the International Gold Cup held at Great Meadow, is at press time scheduled to run at its regular fall time on October 24th. If you plan on attending, check their website www.vagoldcup.com for the most current information.

This year’s Triple Crown races had to break with tradition in order to survive. In order to fit the new dates in, the Belmont Stakes, normally the last and most grueling of the three races, was held first, in June and at the shortest distance. The traditional schedule starts with the Kentucky Derby at a mile and a quarter, then two weeks later the Preakness, near Baltimore at Pimlico, runs at a distance of a mile and three sixteenths, the shortest race of the three normally. Often viewed as the most difficult of the three is the final race, the Belmont Stakes held in New York three weeks after the Preakness. As the last and most grueling of the three races, the Belmont is the longest at a mile and a half. Because it was held in June and first of the three races, the Belmont distance was shortened this year from a mile and a half to a mile and an eighth. The Belmont winner Tiz the Law, a flashy colt with white rimmed eyes and a big white blaze, is favored to win the Derby. Fresh off his victory in the Travers stakes at the same distance August 8th, he’s the one to beat among the projected 20 entries. For more information on the likely Derby entrants visit www.kentuckyderby.com

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