Giddy Up! PA Horse Tracks Green-Lit To Resume Racing By State Health Department

Written By Kevin Shelly on June 11, 2020
Racing to restart soon in PA

Pennsylvania has approved the resumption of horse racing for all six race tracks in the state, Pete Peterson, Pennsylvania Equine Coalition executive director told PlayPA.

Horsemen’s groups at Parx Casino and Racetrack, The Meadows Casino Racetrack, and Penn National Racecourse confirmed that the Health Department emailed green-light letters last evening.

The Meadows is running qualifiers, which happen in the days before harness racing begins. According to Peterson, Meadows is looking to start racing on Monday, June 15, which would make them the first to resume. June 15 update: Racing resumed at 12:45 p.m. at the Meadows track, with 10 races scheduled.

June 19 is the confirmed date for racing at Penn National. Update June 17: Thoroughbred racing resumes in Pennsylvania on Friday, June 19 at Penn National’s track in Grantville, PA, the same day Hollywood Casino reopens. While there will be no spectators allowed at the track, there are views from the simulcast area, though capacity is limited. The first race is set for 6 p.m.

June 12 update: Pocono Sun plans to resume racing on June 20.

Parx is looking to race on June 22.

June 15 update: Presque Isle Downs has a tentative reopening on July 20.

June 21 update: Harrah’s Philadelphia reopened its harness track June 21.

Green light for racing’s return in Pennsylvania

The letters, signed by State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, approved proposed coronavirus precaution protocols previously submitted by tracks.

Addressed to each track manager specifically, the letters read in part:

“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 if the team (or league on behalf of the team) has developed a COVID-19 safety plan. The plan must include, at minimum, a process for testing or screening for COVID-19, and monitoring all on-premises attendees. In the yellow phase, no fans or spectators are allowed in or directly outside of the site or venue.

“In response to your plan to mitigate risks of COVID-19 exposure within your professional sports team operations, pursuant the Department’s legal authority to prevent and control the spread of disease, it has been determined that the organization identified above is permitted to play or practice if all measures set forth in your organizations plan are implemented and maintained.

Reopening safety protocols approved and required by Dept. of Health

Among the approved reopening protocols for tracks (provided by the Department of Agriculture Press Secretary) are:

  • Designate a Commission Pandemic Safety Officer:
    • Acts as an on-site liaison with Licensees and Horsemen.
    • Responsible for ensuring on-site PPE protocols.
    • Maintain proper on-site PPE inventory.
  • No Visitors or Guests in Commission controlled locations.
  • Maintain Social Distancing guidelines where possible.
  • Eliminate communal areas and/or use scheduling to reduce population density.
  • Doors kept open where possible to improve ventilation and reduce contact with door knobs and push plates.
  • Installation of Plexi-glass in designated areas.
  • Installation of sanitizing stations.
  • Provide disinfecting wipes and sprays to wipe down high use areas.
  • Conduct PPE education/training.

Other protocols include screening practices such as “direct questioning and/or temperature readings on personnel.” Any employee testing positive for the virus is mandated a 14-day quarantine before returning.

Trainers are to disinfect horse equipment prior to entering paddock or racetrack areas. Additionally, “Everyone working/living in the barn and paddock areas will wear a suitable covering (a mask, scarf or bandanna) over their nose and mouth at all times in public.

Other limitations in effect until further notice:

  • The racetrack and paddock access will be limited to PHRC, licensed trainers (or assistant trainers) and essential personnel who have horses racing that day.
  • Social distancing measures require that grouping and gathering will not be allowed. All essential racing personnel will be required to maintain appropriate social distancing when possible.
  • Grandstands will remain closed with no admittance to anyone other than those required for live racing operations.

Some PA tracks may lag in reopening

No detailed reopening information was immediately available concerning re-starting racing at the two remaining shuttered tracks: Harrah’s Racetrack, and Presque Isle Downs.

Those tracks depend on so-called ship-ins, rather than resident horses stabled in a backstretch area. Ship-ins represent potential additional health risks and require additional safety protocols.

Messages seeking comment from the state Department of Health, which needed to approve reopening safety protocols, have not been returned.

Long delay by the state on reopening protocols

Racing advocates had met with the administration on May 28 and felt they had been assured a fast turn-around on approving health safety protocols.

PA will be the last state in the region to resume horse racing.

Some tracks in the US continued to race safely during the worst of the virus with no spectators and safety measures in place. Horse betting has increased in popularity and handles at tracks with live racing have boomed due to the absence of most sports – and sports betting.

Races from those tracks became staples for services such as PABets (TVG) and FanDuel Racing in PA.

Tracks ordered closed to stem spread of virus

Racing at all six PA tracks was banned by the state in mid-March, part of efforts to stem the spread of the virus pandemic.

Todd Mostoller, leader of the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA)  at Penn National today announced online:

“Our COVID-19 safety protocols have received approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which will allow racing to resume at Penn National on Friday, June 19th.

“For the first 3 weeks, Penn National will race on Wednesdays and Fridays. After that, we will move to racing 3 nights a week. The overnight purse structure will be as it was when racing ceased in March. The Penn National Condition Book will be posted online very soon. Entries for the 1st day of racing will be taken 72 hours out.”

Mostoller, who also reps horsemen at Presque Isle, also said that track has no re-opening date due to its dependence on horses shipped in for racing, not on horses stabled at the facility.

He has previously said he believes racing at Presque Isle might begin in July.

Wolf has strained relations with the race track community

The horse community and the Wolf administration have a history of strained relations. In February, Wolf blindsided them by saying he wanted to take $204 million from a trust fund for purses and breeding and divert it to university scholarships. The fund comes from about a 10 percent cut of casino slot machine revenue and was part of the deal that ushered in the approval of casinos in 2004.

But that plan failed to develop much traction before everything was derailed by the coronavirus.

A temporary budget for the state which did not touch the trust fund is now in place. However, the issue could be raised again in November when a budget for the rest of the year is up for approval.

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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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