‘Unhappy Opening Day’ in Kentucky Makes Live Horse Racing Future Unsure

Posted on: April 2, 2020, 07:48h. 

Last updated on: April 3, 2020, 07:49h.

Thursday was supposed to be the start of Keeneland’s spring horse racing meet in Lexington, Ky., a holiday for some in this thoroughbred-crazy state. Instead, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) held a virtual meeting to discuss future racing dates, as the state, just like the rest of the country, comes to grips with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Keeneland’s spring meet is a major event every year in Kentucky. But the coronavirus pandemic forced the Lexington race track to cancel this year’s meet. (Image: Calstanhope/Wikimedia Commons)

“A term I never thought I’d have to say… Unhappy Opening Day,” Keeneland President and CEO Bill Thomason told members of the commission’s Race Dates Advisory Committee on the video conference call.

Last month, Keeneland made the decision to cancel its three-week meet after federal officials issued strict social distancing guidelines that made hosting a live meet in front of thousands of fans an impossible task.

After hearing from the state’s thoroughbred and harness racing tracks about their current status, KHRC Board Chair Frank Kling Jr. said he was hopeful racing could resume as soon as possible. However, the commission could not tell the tracks when they could possibly resume live racing.

Not knowing that timeline will challenge our ability to have resources in place and horses ready to return to racing when government officials give us the thumbs up,” Kling said. “However, we are all in this together, and together we will best shape our future by being flexible and responsive to the changing situation. All stakeholders working in the same direction with the same goals as always will best serve the industry.”

Live racing in Kentucky stopped last week when Turfway Park shelved the final three days of its winter meet. That came after Gov. Andy Beshear issued a stay home order that closed all non-essential businesses in the state. As it has elsewhere, simulcasting centers have been closed by COVID-19. But bettors can use mobile apps and websites to watch races and place bets.

Seven US Tracks Still Racing

While racing has stopped in Kentucky, it continues at a select number of tracks across the country, even in some states that have issued stay-home orders for non-essential business and travel.

Florida’s stay-home order is set to take effect Friday morning. But representatives from Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream Park have indicated their tracks will continue racing.

In California, the Los Angeles County Health Department shut down Santa Anita a week after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s issued his stay-home order. On Wednesday, Sacramento County officials shut down Cal Expo’s harness racing meet, and on Thursday, the Alameda County Public Health Officer requested Golden Gate Fields stop live racing.

However, Los Alamitos in Orange County is still scheduled to run quarter horse races this weekend.

According to Equibase, racing is also taking place at Will Rogers Downs and Remington Park in Oklahoma, Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Arkansas, and Fonner Park in Nebraska.

At all tracks where racing continues, no fans are allowed on the premises in an attempt to keep the coronavirus from spreading.

Churchill Would Race Without Fans

The spring meet at Churchill Downs is scheduled to start on April 25. However, since track officials have delayed when horses may arrive at the Louisville venue until April 14 – and even that date may get pushed back – it’s highly likely Churchill Downs’ meet will not start on time. That’s especially since the Kentucky Derby and other events that take place during the meet’s first week have been pushed back to September.

Still, Kevin Flanery, track president for Churchill Downs, told the commission there’s interest in running races even without fans under the famed Twin Spires.

“We’ll be prepared,” Flanery told the commission members. “Because this is such a fluid situation, if we are asked to run spectatorless, then we will be prepared to do that. Obviously, we have a lot of things to work on, but we have the experience at Turfway Park. We will be taking that guidance, and whatever scenario is put forward to us, we’re trying to work through those and be ready to run at the right time.”