Putting The Cart Before The Horse? Pulling In The Reins On Plans To Reopen Racing In PA

Written By Kevin Shelly on May 7, 2020 - Last Updated on May 25, 2023
PA track opening plans on hold for now

Talk of horse racing’s imminent resumption in Pennsylvania seems a bit of putting the cart before the horse for now.

Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf, this week threw cold water on the notion of racing restarting soon, but more about that later in the story.

On the plus side for restarting horse racing in PA

Still, there are hopeful signs about lifting the racing shutdown, which came as a result of COVID-19. The disease has caused 53,000 infections and more than 3,400 deaths, by PA’s count as of May 7.

On the plus side:

  • The PA Horse Racing Commission sent a 571-word letter to Gov. Tom Wolf on May 1, asking for the return of racing.
  • The letter, signed by state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding and printed in full by PlayPennsylvania, has been shared about 200 times on the FaceBook pages of Let ‘Em Run, the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association and the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition.
  • There’s been lots of hopeful speculation on social media.
  • Reopening plans from the state’s three harness and three thoroughbred tracks are due for submission to the racing commission on May 8. Wolf will announce modifications to his restrictions that same day.
  • Wolf has said, without committing to a specific date, he would consider a resumption of racing.
  • Other competing US racing jurisdictions are restarting or making plans to begin competition again, but without crowds and with safety protocols.
  • Some jurisdictions never stopped racing, though without crowds in attendance. To date, there appear to be no virus infection outbreaks as a result.
  • The backstretches at Parx Casino and Racing and Penn National Race Course have remained active during the shutdown, filled with horses and personnel, apparently without infection issues.
  • Also, the infection rate in less-populated sections of PA, where some of the tracks are located, is relatively low.

Restarting soon depends on many uncertainties

But restarting soon?

Well, that depends on how you define “soon” and also how the uncertainties shake out.

Among the uncertainties:

  • Wolf has so far not responded to the racing commission’s reopening letter.
  • The racing commission has not said how long it will take to review individual track reopening plans. The commission does not meet again until May 26.
  • Wolf plans to revisit reopening plans on May 8, which is just a week before Presque Isle Downs in the low-infection northwest county of Erie hoped to open its backstretch. If that happens, that would mean an opening of the meet on June 8.
  • If May 15 isn’t realistic, the backstretch reopening for Presque Isle will move back to June 1. That means the first day of racing would be June 22. The Presque Isle information comes from Todd Mostellor of the PA Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which reps both Presque and Parx horsemen. He did not respond to a request for comment.
  • For now, Presque Isle is the only PA track in a yellow zone where restrictions will ease, though not disappear. Erie County has had 101 infections and two deaths.
  • None of the remaining tracks appear to have floated even tentative reopening dates.
  • A teleconference to discuss reopening all tracks, initially scheduled for May 6, was canceled by the racing commission. It should now take place next week, but there does not appear to be a date and time set yet.
  • And two tracks, Parx and Harrah’s Racetrack Philadelphia, are near the virus hot zone surrounding Philadelphia. Their host counties have each had more than 3,000 infections and more than 300 deaths, according to state data. The lockdown in those counties now extends until June 4.
  • The Racing Commission has postponed several stakes races previously set for June. They include a June 6 pacing sires and stallions series which was set for the Meadows Racetrack and Casino. A June 7 sires and stallions series which was set for Mohegan Sun Pocono. And a June 11 sires and stallions series set for Harrah’s. New dates will be determined later, according to the announcement.

Large gatherings prohibited, Wolf spokeswoman points out

PlayPennsylvania asked Wolf’s spokesperson for comment about the reopening letter sent by the racing commission, and also the tentative racing start dates floated by Presque Isle.

She did not directly respond to the details of either question.

But she made the following statement:

“For counties entering the yellow phase (such as Erie), large gatherings of more than 25 are prohibited. Further, all indoor recreation and all entertainment (including casinos) remain closed.”

She also included a link to the state’s color-coded reopening plans.

Farm manager questions the state’s logic

Mark Egloff, the manager of a sizable standardbred horse farm in Gettysburg, understands the need for safety. But he questions the logic of not allowing racing, given that some track backsides have remained active without any reported health issues.

“Racing doesn’t require any more people than keeping a track’s backside open,” he said.

Given the “pent-up demand” for live sports and sports wagering while most team sports are benched, he said now would be a time to “generate revenue” for the state and the horse racing community.

“The damage is great. The pandemic has thrown everything upside down,” said Egloff.

Equibase shows a huge surge in the value of races

The tracking company Equibase, which follows thoroughbred wagering figures, saw an average of $7.5 million in handle, up 176.5% from the prior year during April, according to Legal Sports Report.

Racing without spectators works even during the shutdown because live races are still televised or streamed, and horse betting is available through services such as TVG (PABets) and FanDuel Racing in PA.

We’ll continue to provide updates on reopenings in the state here at PlayPennsylvania, including at our ongoing PA closures live updates page.

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Written by
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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