Late Wednesday, Gov. Tom Wolf released revised reopening guidance for sports, which could accelerate the return of horse racing without spectators and with safety protocols.
This afternoon, the Wolf administration met horse industry representatives. It was the first direct meeting since Wolf ordered the closure of casinos and six associated horse tracks in mid-March.
The governor’s office hasn’t commented to PlayPennsylvania on either the loosened reopening plan or the meeting.
A positive meeting
Todd Mostoller, the leader of the horseman’s group at the tracks at Penn National Race Course and Presque Isle Downs, said the meeting went well.
Staff members of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission put together a draft plan to safely restarting without spectators. It is drawn from submissions at each of the state’s six tracks, he said.
The commission plan lays out safety protocols and procedures.
Members of the racing commission will be asked to sign off on the plan by email. It then goes to the PA Department of Health, which promised during the meeting to review the reopening plan, “hopefully within 36 hours.”
More discussion will follow, said Mosteller, but there was a general agreement that racing at some tracks could potentially restart within three weeks.
The first tracks to resume will be the locations where the personnel and horses remain on the backsides, Mostoller said. Those locations are Penn National, The Meadows Racetrack, and Parx Racing. A location such as Presque Isle Downs, where ship-ins of horses are necessary, will take longer.
Update: After PlayPennsylania published, a spokeswoman for Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, who is the chair of the racing commission, said a review of the safety protocols “is in progress” and will be available once the review is completed. She added the commission staff” does not have a list of participants in today’s meeting.
Additionally, Mostoller later told the membership of the Pennsylvania Horseman’s Benevolent Association he expects the state Department of Health to have the protocols document by “no later than Monday morning.” He additionally told his members racing at Presque Isle is tentatively set for July 6.
May 30 update: Sal DeBundo, leader of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association optimistically said on a Parx YouTube channel he believes all locations where there is a track should be in so virus zones that are designated at least yellow and could reopen as soon as June 5.
Bill to force a resumption of PA horse racing under consideration, too
Meanwhile, a bill forcing the resumption of racing is before the PA House. The sponsor, Barry Jozwiak, is concerned with the economic impact on the industry. He also pointed to the huge amount of wagering at US tracks that have continued safely racing.
The popularity of online horse betting has only increased during the crisis.
Resumption of racing viable option
The changes in Wolf’s guidelines are significant:
- The revised reopening guidance no longer categorizes racetracks in with casinos or theaters.
- The term “purse” now appears as part of the qualifying definition of a covered sport.
- Reopening can happen in the yellow phase, instead of the green phase.
- No spectators.
- A COVID-19 safety plan needs state approval.
Complete language of the sports reopening guidance
The complete language reads:
The Wolf administration has worked with Pennsylvania’s professional sports teams to develop guidance that allows for competition to resume.
Professional sports, defined as any sporting event at which the participants are paid by a league or team, or at which individuals or teams receive prizes or purse, are allowed to practice or play in the yellow and green phases of reopening without on-site or venue spectators if the team (or league on behalf of the team) has developed a COVID-19 safety plan.
Such a plan must be approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Health and include, among other requirements, testing or screening and monitoring of all on-venue players and personnel. Also, no fans or spectators may be permitted on interior or exterior venue property. Professional sports organizations are encouraged to contact the Wolf administration to share their reopening plans and get them approved by the Department of Health.
Releasing the new guidance just before meeting with the PA horse racing industry and specifically using the term “purse” appeared promising to the horse community.
Wolf plans to host his first live press conference in the past two months with reporters present on Friday. Journalists have had to submit written questions in advance. By contrast, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has fielded live questions throughout the shutdown.
Not all PA horse tracks are on track yet
Based on the incidence of the virus and their current color phase designations as yellow, the tracks where the virus is least are:
- Presque Isle Downs in Erie County
- The Meadows Racetrack in Washington County
- Penn National in Dauphin County
However, the backside at Presque Isle is empty. And ship-ins present their issues with virus containment and take time.
Tracks still in the red phase are:
- Harrah’s Racetrack in Delaware County
- Parx Racetrack in Bucks County
- Pocono Sun in Lackawanna County
Tracks in the red-phase region likely have later timelines for reopening, though the zones are being updated weekly.
The backside at Parx is filled. And Harrah’s and Pocono have no backsides, depending instead on daily ship-ins.
Update: Pennsylvania Harness Horsemen’s Association President Sam Beegle, who participated in the meeting, thinks there is a chance all of the tracks could be permitted to re-open within three weeks. He responded to a request for comment after this story was first published.