When Will Horse Tracks Reopen In PA, Border States, And Beyond?

Posted on May 15, 2020 - Last Updated on May 23, 2020

BREAKING NEWS UPDATE May 20: Horsemen’s groups apparently have a commitment to meet directly with members of Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration in the coming days for the first time since he ordered a shutdown of racing. Notice from the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents horsemen at two thoroughbred tracks, said the meeting with the administrations is agreed to, though not yet scheduled. Another equine group leader also said he is aware of the plan.

Additionally, the HPBA said Penn National Gaming has agreed to reopen its track in Grantville, PA without spectators as soon as allowed, even if that is before the casino (Hollywood) is allowed to reopen. There was no similar mention of Presque Isle, the association’s other member track.

PlayPennsylvania will update as more information becomes available.

Horse racing never completely stopped even as COVID-19 peaked across the US and around the globe. But racing shut down in Pennsylvania on March 16 and remains closed despite racing elsewhere.

Even with the shutdown, the backsides where barns and living quarters adjoin tracks at Penn National Racecourse and Parx Racing, both thoroughbred tracks, and the Meadows Racetrack & Casino, a harness course, have remained open and active, though without racing.

For instance, as many as 100 employees are living at Parx and as many as 800 horses, according to one former employee.

No racing in PA yet, says Wolf

The PA State Horse Racing Commission sent a formal letter to Gov. Tom Wolf on May 1, asking him to allow racing to resume with safety protocols, including no spectators. Following through, tracks submitted plans for reopening to the racing commission by May 8.

On May 12, the governor responded to the commission in a way that leaves little hope for a resumption of racing soon.

Part of his response read:

“We foresee horse racing reopening when counties enter the green phase, like other entertainment (casinos, theaters, etc).”

Wolf offered no concrete timelines for the resumption of racing at the state’s three thoroughbred tracks and three harness tracks. But it’s not likely racing will recommence in PA until casinos get the green light, which won’t happen until their county moves to Phase Green in the state’s phased reopening plan.

As of May 15, two tracks’ counties had moved to Yellow: Presque Isle Downs (Erie) and The Meadows (Washington).

Updated May 19: Ninteen PA state senators signed a letter asking Wolf to reopen racing, arguing it can be done safely. Likewise, the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association made a recent plea to Wolf for reopening, pointing out nearby Ohio has a date set for resumption.

Updated May 26: The state Horse Racing Commission unanimously endorsed a bill making its way through the house – HB 2544 – which would allow for a waiver allowing horse racing to resume with safety protocols.

As a service to readers, PlayPennsylvania is following opening plans at tracks in PA plus around the nation and the globe.

Reopening schedule for PA thoroughbred and harness tracks:

PA Race TrackCounty & Color PhaseRacing Resumption Date
Presque Isle Downs (Thoroughbred)Erie (Yellow)TBD
Meadow's Racetrack (Harness)Washington (Yellow)TBD
Parx Racing (Thoroughbred)Bucks (Red)TBD
Penn National Racecourse (Thoroughbred)Dauphin (Red)TBD
Harrah's Philadelphia (Harness)Delaware (Red)TBD
Mohegan Sun Pocono (Harness)Luzerne (Red)TBD

Harness tracks may be slower to open, no matter their green zone status, than thoroughbred tracks, according to industry sources. That’s because the handles at standardbred tracks are lower than they are at thoroughbred courses. The only real stronghold for harness racing now is Sweden.

Interest and demand for racing up, supply limited

Meanwhile, the appetite for racing and horse betting has swollen as tracks running without spectators have filled the sporting void and focused attention on the tracks where the ponies are still racing.

For instance, tiny and obscure Fonner Park in heartland Nebraska has recently averaged more than $2.8 million in bets each day, more than eight times its action a year ago. The handle can grow without a crowd watching because live streaming and betting apps bring the action to distant fans.

In Pennsylvania, racing fans can still wager on the ponies at the state’s regulated horse betting apps, PABets and FanDuel Racing.

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Overseas tracks reopening plans

  • Some jurisdictions, especially most of Australia, never shut down. Asian venues, especially Hong Kong, are also racing now or never stopped.
  • Sweden began racing in April, and Germany just recently in early May.
  • France has just resumed racing.
  • May 19 update: Reversing course, authorities again shut down racing in parts of France with high virus counts, including Paris.
  • Ireland resumes June 8.
  • May 28 update: Racing has resumed in Canada and New Zealand.
  • May 29 update: Racing has resumed in Moscow.
  • England, and Germany are contemplating returning to racing in the near term.
  • But racing in South Africa, home to that continent’s most important races, is on hold with no relief in sight.

US tracks reopening plans

  • About a half a dozen tracks across the country never stopped racing during shutdowns elsewhere in the country. Their locations included Florida, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Arkansas, and California.
  • The meet in Arkansas has ended, but additional tracks in jurisdictions across the country are contemplating reopening soon, including the fabled Churchill Downs in Lexington, Kentucky.
  • Santa Anita in Los Angeles raced without spectators until March 27 before shutting down racing. That track reopens May 15, and Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley, CA reopened on May 14.
  • On May 22, Ohio’s seven tracks may reopen, though the adjoining Ohio casinos remain closed. Laurel Park, in Maryland, also reopens that day.
  • Texas being Texas, the state plans to run before spectators beginning May 31, but with the crowd capped at 25 percent of capacity.
  • Updated May 16: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced May 16 will allow tracks to on June 1, but he’s left it to individual courses to set their own return date. Saratoga Race Course, for instance, has a July 16th opening date scheduled.
  • Louisiana tracks are opening on various dates in June.
  • May 23 update: The Maine Gambling Control Board this week approved making digital horse racing bets. Previously, fans were permitted to wager on horse racing only at a racetrack or an off-track betting facility.
  • May 26 update: Racing resumes in Indiana in mid-June.

Triple Crown rescheduled

  • The rescheduled Kentucky Derby is now set for September 5.
  • May 17 update: The Preakness is now set for October 3.
  • May 19 update: The Belmont, usually the final leg of the Triple Crown, is now set for June 20. It will be the first leg of the Triple Crown for the first time in history, and run at 1 1/8 mile rather than the typical 1 1/2 mile. The purse has also been reduced by a third to $1 million due to lack of casino revenues which help fund purses.

Racing plans in states bordering PA

  • New York: Allowed to reopen June 1, but each track will set its own resumption date.
  • New Jersey: July 3 is listed for Monmouth Park. Freehold has no information posted. Update May 29: The Meadowlands begins running qualifiers May 31 with a plan to resume racing June 5. NJ. Gov. Phil Murphy gave the go-ahead for all tracks on May 29.
  • Delaware: May 27 is listed on the calendar as Delaware Park‘s opening day of their meet. But that could change.
  • Maryland: Laurel Park reopens May 30. No word yet on Pimlico.
  • West Virginia: Charles Town reopened for live racing at 7 p.m. May 14, and Mountaineer Park will follow later in May.
  • Ohio: Just got approval to reopen all tracks on May 22.

PlayPennsylvania will continue to update with the latest in racing reopening plans, so check back often.

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Written by
Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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