PA Tracks Prepare Reopening Plans As The Future Of Racing Hangs In The Balance

Written By Kevin Shelly on April 28, 2020 - Last Updated on May 14, 2020
PA horse racing inching toward reopening

Members of the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission began early steps toward reopening racing in the Keystone State.

During a phone conference on Monday, they talked with track representatives and horsemen’s associations about following health protocols and procedures.

On Tuesday, a public update was provided during the monthly PA Horse Racing Commission meeting.

Request that governor reopen tracks to racing

The racing commission agreed to ask Gov. Tom Wolf to allow a resumption of racing. A commission member raised this very idea last week in an interview with PlayPennsylvania.

On March 16, the three thoroughbred tracks and three harness tracks in PA were ordered closed. Some had not yet even opened for the racing season.

Their shutdown was done in conjunction with the state-ordered closure of all casinos as a means of slowing the spread of COVID-19. The state’s six tracks are each linked to a land-based casino.

April 30 update: During his daily virus update conference Wednesday afternoon, a reporter asked Wolf: “Would you consider allowing horse racing to run without spectators as other states have?

The governor had previously said some of his statewide restrictions should lift in some areas, beginning with the north and northwest regions of the state.

“We haven’t determined the final list,” Wolf said, “but [horse racing] is certainly under consideration.”

He did not provide a timetable, though.

PA wants reopening plans by May 8

Tom Chuckas, who oversees thoroughbred racing for the state, asked on Monday for formal submissions of reopening plans by May 8. Harness tracks and their horsemen’s associations were also part of the telephone conference discussion.

In all, five tracks were in on the Monday conference call and horsemen groups attached to four tracks. A fifth track was filled in subsequently, Chuckas told members of the commission during Tuesday’s board meeting.

He said the discussion centered on “protocols and procedure,” particularly for race stewards and judges. Much of the talk was about mandates for safety, he added.

“The goal is quite simple,” he told commissioners. “And that’s to develop best practices for safety that are Pennsylvania-centric.” He said the goal is to be “ready to go” as soon as the racing ban lifts, even though no precise date is set.

Members of the commission followed up by agreeing they would send a letter to Wolf by May 1.

Strained relationship between Wolf and the horse folks

The race chairman, Russell Redding, who is also the state’s Secretary of Agriculture, briefly mentioned Wolf wants to ease some virus restrictions starting May 8. But only in sections of the state where COVID-19 infections are fewer.

Presque Isle Downs in Erie, in the far northwest of PA, is scheduled to begin racing on May 11, according to their event calendar. But that could still change.

Redding said sending a letter to Wolf soon is the way to begin to “wind it back up.” The board’s next meeting is May 22.

Wolf and Redding have a strained relationship with the PA horse community that predates coronavirus closures.

On February 4, the governor proposed raiding a trust fund that is reserved for the horse industry. The idea is to send $204 million annually to a proposed scholarship fund. While the plan seems to have little traction, Wolf recently said he has not given up.

Racing has continued in some locations without spectators

Horse racing stakeholders in PA are currently focused on getting racing back on track as soon as possble.

From Florida to California, about a half a dozen US tracks have continued to race thoroughbreds, but without spectators present.

Racing has continued overseas without spectators in most of Australia and some other locations. And a phased-in resumption of racing is under consideration for England, according to the Worcester News.

And while tracks are closed to racing in PA, the backsides – areas with stables and living spaces – remain open at two tracks in the state.

Except for racing, the daily activities of feeding, grooming, and training horses have continued there and at nearby training farms.

Interest in racing and betting on horses is way up

The absence of crowds works because the races are televised (or streamed in-app), and horse betting is available through services such as TVG. Horse racing and wagering are gaining popularity of late as they draw the interest of frustrated gamblers.

Television viewing of horse racing is booming in the absence of other sports options.

April 30 update: Harrah’s Philadelphia Racetrack is adding new racing venues to its broadcasts on TVG, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal. The additional races help fill the sports void and generate revenue, officials told the news site.

The most popular horse race of the year, the Kentucky Derby, has been postponed to Sept. 5. But Churchill Downs is hosting a virtual Kentucky Derby on NBC on the Derby’s original date of May 2 to satisfy the public’s appetite for the sport.

Whether PA can get back to racing sometime in May should be determined soon, along with many other plans currently enshrouded in uncertainty.

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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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