‘You Can Shut Off Slot Machines, But Not These Animals,’ Says PA Jockey Tara Hynes

Written By Kevin Shelly on May 20, 2020 - Last Updated on August 9, 2022
PA Jockey shares inside view of racing with virus protocols

Jockey Tara Hynes (pictured above on the No. 2 horse), who has ridden at Parx and Penn National in Pennsylvania, as well tracks in New York and New Jersey – all currently idled due to COVID-19 precautions – has continued safely racing without stopping.

She humbly believes PA Gov. Tom Wolf and his advisors do not understand what it takes to race – and more especially to race safely in the new reality – since racing has no restart timeline in PA.

Don’t get her wrong; she believes in safety measures.

After all, she knew members of the family of harness trainer Carmine Fusco who, like her and Bruce Springsteen, called Freehold, NJ, home. Fusco was the first to die of the virus in PA, where he trained horses. Three more members of the Fusco family also died. And three other members of the family had the virus but survived.

No, Hynes doesn’t take the virus lightly.

‘No method to their madness’ jockey said of Wolf’s guidelines

Still, Hynes has been racing right through the virus pandemic at the formerly obscure Fonner Park in Grand Island, a town of about 48,500 in central Nebraska.

Based on her practical experience at the height of the virus, including a high concentration of COVID-19 cases in the area, she thinks the Wolf administration “has no method to their madness.”

That begins with Wolf’s reopening guidelines, which lump racetracks without spectators in under the same criteria as casinos and theaters.

Hynes said:

That’s not applicable. You can shut off slot machines, but not these animals. I think it is important for them to understand.”

Horse racing without spectators does not increase close interactions

“There’s less interaction for personnel” before and during a race than there is on a typical non-race day of feeding, exercising, grooming and caring for the horses quartered on a track’s backside, said Hynes.

The backsides at Parx, Penn National and the Meadows have remained filled with horses and people despite the racing shutdown ordered by Wolf in mid-March.

I feel for them at home,” said Hynes, a Jersey girl with an improbable career who earned her racing license at Parx.

Jockey with an unconventional career

She’s won driving a harness horse, as well as riding a thoroughbred, which is a rare feat. She also has done dressage and jumping. At 5-feet, 7-inches, she’s unconventionally tall for a jockey. And then, of course, she’s female. Women make up somewhere around just 10% of licensed jockeys in the US.

Hynes has no family connections to horses either. Her first “time on the board” was riding a horse to a third-place finish at Parx, but on a horse that went off at 75 to 1.

Then she had an injury and wanted to return to racing in a location where she didn’t know anyone, where she’d be a blank slate.

“I’ve definitely had to work harder, but it’s that much more gratifying,” she said of her dedication and her fortuitous gut decision to get in her car and drive to Nebraska well before the virus changed racing.

Mitigation rules work at tracks

Hynes spoke about racing without spectators, which she has done and observed firsthand. “Racing is not a safety or health issue. Racing really doesn’t affect the rules [for mitigating against the spread of the virus],” Hynes said.

The mitigation rules are straightforward and easy to follow and replicate. Among them are spacing out stalls, spreading out saddling and paddock areas, temperature checks, wearing masks, no horse ship-ins allowed during the meet, distancing, maintaining a 10-person rule for all activities in all locations.

Racing a 10-horse field requires perhaps 60 people, but never all in one place at one time, and much of it outdoors.

Fonner Park has raced on with virus precautions

Hynes arrived at Fonner pre-virus, back in February, without knowing the racing world would soon be upside down, or that some of the focus of the racing world would shift to the track and her, the only female jockey at the meet.

The host town is perhaps best known for being the birthplace of late actor Henry Fonda, though his family left just a year later. Oh, and Grand Island is also known for tornadoes, once recording seven in just a day.

In these days of virus precautions shutting down so much, Fonner Park and about a dozen resident jockeys are part of the center of attention for live sports events in the US and beyond. Fonner was among only about half a dozen tracks across America, which continued racing through the pandemic but without spectators. The New York Times even recently profiled the small race park.

Horse racing is suddenly ultra-popular

The Nebraska park’s all-sources pari-mutuel handle has risen to an astounding $3.2 million a day, according to a local NBC station. Bets come in from South America to Europe. Merchandise from their gift shop is suddenly in demand.

While isolated, TVG widely broadcasts their live races through PABets and other channels. The races are Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 4 p.m. CST, though they scratched racing on May 20.

In Pennsylvania, online horse betting for a number of tracks still running, including Fonner Park, is available at FanDuel Racing and PABets.

‘Borrowed time’

But income is relatively low because of less gambling revenue from bets placed outside returns to the track. And there are no gate or concession sales without a crowd. The park renegotiated its take on the rights to stream its races just recently.

With that, the park extended the season by a month, decreasing purses and upping fees, and that’s fine with Hynes, who came to build her experience and resume.

“We’re living on borrowed time,” said Hynes.

But she added:

Anything is better than nothing, which is what they are getting in PA now.”

The last day of the Fonner meet is May 27.

Hynes thinks her gut is telling her to drive to Colorado to continue racing in June. Especially since it remains unclear when racing in PA will return.

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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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