And They’re Off, Well, Nearly: Horse Racing In PA Awaits Approved Safety Protocols

Written By Kevin Shelly on June 4, 2020
PA horse racing still awaiting safety protocol approval

Technically, based on the color-coding of regions due to the pandemic precautions by Gov. Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania’s three thoroughbred and three harness tracks all could re-open on Friday, June 5.

But the reality is way different.

Lack of approved safety protocols delaying racing in PA

Realistically, racing seems more likely to resume no sooner than mid-June – and later at some tracks – for several reasons.

Foremost, the PA Department of Health has not provided tracks with an approved list of safety protocols for reopening as of mid-afternoon June 4, according to Todd Mostoller. He represents thoroughbred horsemen at the Penn National and Presque Isle Downs tracks.

Without a safety protocol approved by the state, there is no way to move forward toward re-starting racing, even without spectators.

That approved protocol is a key element of the move to restart racing in PA.

Wolf officials promised to expedite approval of protocols

Mostoller, who participated on a May 28 call between the Wolf administration and horsemen, said the administration had promised to expedite the Health Department review.

Representing Wolf were two of his deputy chiefs of staff and a ranking member of the Health Department.

On the horsemen’s side, the key organizer was lawyer and lobbyist Steve Crawford, who said a week later, “We are anxiously awaiting” approval. He also said he has had assurances recently from someone within the governor’s office that the document is under active review.

But so far there is no finished document to guide plans for reopening.

Racing Commission submitted a draft protocol on Monday

The PA Race Horse Commission forwarded its draft of virus health protocols to the state Health Department on Monday. That document was assembled from the plans submitted to the commission by the state’s six tracks.

Shannon Powers, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, who also serves as chairman of the racing commission, said she could not yet provide the document the commission submitted to the Health Department.

She added:

“The State Horse Racing Commission submitted draft safety protocols for reopening tracks to the Department of Health on June 1. The documents will not be final until the review is completed. Once final, the protocols will be provided to track managers, horse owners and other stakeholders.

“It’s important to note that the plan will need to demonstrate agreement from the casino that owns each track to ensure that there will be cooperation in enforcing requirements.”

PlayPennsylvania has requested a copy of the approved safety protocol.

Best estimate for at least Parx is no sooner than June 15

Dick Jerardi, a retired horse racing journalist who works with Parx, also sat in on the phone meeting.

Based on his participation in the meeting, he said his best estimate for opening Parx back up for racing is somewhere between June 15 and June 22, with racing days Monday through Wednesday. That means PA will be dead last in the region for restarting racing.

None of the tracks have officially said when they plan to begin racing again.

However, the Meadows Racetrack and Casino has already posted it is reopening the casino on June 9 at noon. Simulcasting and racebook wagering should resume then. But there is no updated information regarding when racing resumes.

June 7 update: The leader of the horsemen’s group at Penn National has told members he believes June 19 will be the day racing resumes.

June 8 update: The June 19 date was repeated for Penn National and pre-racing activities such as veterinary reviews, lab work, and practice in the starting gate is beginning. Live racing is expected to start on July 6 at Presque Isle Downs.

Wolf plan to take $204 million from racing trust on hold, for now

Wolf had announced in February he wanted to take $204 million from a trust fund paid for by a cut of casino slot revenue and used to support horse racing purses and breeding.

But his plan never gained traction with legislative support and the state recently passed a temporary budget as it grapples with the economic fallout of COVID-19.

The temporary budget runs through November 30. For now, it isn’t clear if the governor will attempt to resurrect his plan to pay for university scholarships with the horse trust money.

While that is on hold, the PA horse industry’s main concern is getting racing back up and running. Meanwhile, horse racing continues elsewhere, and online horse betting along with it.

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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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