Getting Back On Track In PA? Pressure Building For Horse Racing To Resume

Posted on April 20, 2020 - Last Updated on May 14, 2020

Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission member John Egloff, an equine veterinarian and the owner of a sizable horse farm, thinks there should be a discussion soon of how to restart horse racing in the Keystone State.

Egloff’s point of discussion comes just as both President Donald Trump and PA Gov. Tom Wolf have spoken about how to return to some semblance of normal.

Time to discuss getting back to racing?

“I think they should try and open racing on a limited basis without people in the stands,” said Egloff during a recent interview with PlayPennsylvania.

Tracks were ordered closed – some had not yet even opened for the racing season – in PA on March 16.

That was done in conjunction with the state-ordered closures 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.

Still lots of activity at tracks

But the order does not mean all activity ceased at PA’s three thoroughbred courses and three harness tracks.

The backsides – a limited-access area with stables, living spaces, and other amenities for a large number of horses and support personnel which make a track run – have largely remained open.

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

Presque Isle Downs in Erie, PA announced at the end of March that backside and stable areas would be closed through at least April 30. Live racing is on the schedule to begin May 11, but that could change. Vice President and General Manager of Presque Isle Downs Kevin O’Sullivan said the following:

“Together, we are in the midst of an unprecedented global health crisis and every tough decision we make is made with the best real time information we have from government officials and public health experts. We understand how trying the impact of this decision is on our horsemen, but we will continue to work tirelessly with public health experts toward a satisfactory resolution so our horsemen and their horses can return home safely as soon as possible.”

Tracks elsewhere still open

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

That works because the races are televised, and horse betting is available through services such as TVG. Overseas, racing has continued without spectators in most of Australia and some other locations, also drawing the interest of frustrated gamblers.

Television viewing of horse racing is also up, as it draws more interest with regular seasons of other sports on hold. Total viewership on Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2, and NBC Sports Network, which cover racing days, is up 206% from the same time last year, AP Sports reports.

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As a result of the shutdown of most US tracks, Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas is now the epicenter of live betting attention, drawing wagers four times their norm because no other traditional American sports are underway during the virus shutdown.

But Oaklawn’s meet ends May 2 with two marquee races, leaving yet another void for racing and wagering.

That has not gone unnoticed.

Pressure building for racing to resume

Kentucky state Sen. Damon Thayer last week implored Governor Andy Beshear to allow the resumption of racing, but without spectators, in the Bluegrass State. The storied Kentucky Derby is now set for September 5, 2020, in hopes of running the event before a live crowd.

Horse owners in New Mexico are also pushing for racing’s return. The state Racing Commission discussed the issues with track owners in a closed meeting on Thursday. Like in PA, New Mexico will need the governor to sign off on lifting the racing ban.

Commission chairwoman Beverly Bourguet told the AP Press that the commission will hear out track owners, and are observing what has worked and what hasn’t at tracks that have continued racing without spectators. According to Bourguet:

“We are in uncharted territory and not knowing how long we need to prioritize the health and safety of our people to combat this pandemic. We will get through this, but we will need to move slowly and carefully with some protocols.”

Which brings us back to the dearth of racing in PA and Egloff’s hope to discuss how and when horse racing might resume at the next PA racing commission meeting on April 29. That meeting will be held virtually.

Sal DeBunda, President of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (PTHA), shared in a recent announcement that he has June 1 in mind as a goal for the return of racing to the Keystone State. He added, however, “I have no indication that that’s necessarily going to happen.”

Updated April 22: A facebook group called “Let ‘Em Run” has also launched a change.org petition entitled “Save horse racing in Pennsylvania before it’s too late.” The petition had over 4,000 signatures in just a few days.

‘You can’t shut the doors’ to the racing barn

Given the nature of stables and their support systems, “you can’t shut the doors” to a horse barn, said Egloff. “Mares are going to have foals,” regardless of the virus, and need tending, as well as the other stock.

He added:

“Tracks are open. There are crops of horses that are going to be sold in the fall, and another crop following. You can’t stop a crop. There’s a major sale in the fall.”

Egloff said he thought racing could resume soon with “mitigation and precautions.”

“I sure want to discuss this. It is the governor’s decision, though. But I do think the governor needs to consider this.”

A return to racing could mean gambling revenue

The vet said racing without spectators could bring in gambling revenue. That’s important since the tax revenue the state depends on from brick-and-mortar casinos is dry for the foreseeable.

The challenges of social distancing presented by rows of slot machines on crowded casino floors are far different from racing without spectators.

“I want to see it opened as soon as possible,” said Egloff, quickly adding he’s “biased” given his background as an owner of 200 harness racing horses at Vieux Carre Farms in Gettysburg, PA.

Owners and drivers in the harness racing business have expressed similar sentiments. Owner Bill Mullin also highlighted the importance for the horses to stay active to be ready to race when it does come back, according to The Citizens’ Voice.

Wolf’s been a burr under the saddle for PA racing

Wolf stunned the horse industry on February 4 when he proposed repurposing $204 million from a trust fund he had signed off on just three years before. The fund covers many of the expenses of equine racing in PA, especially purses and breeding programs.

His proposal has not appeared to have gained political traction. Even a key member of his Democrat party on a Senate committee that oversees most gambling legislation has opposed his plan.

But Wolf said during a daily virus briefing he has yet to abandon the proposal, which would pay for scholarships at PA state universities.

For now, horsemen’s attention will be on getting racing back up and running. The April 29 racing commission meeting will make for an ideal time to continue that discussion. The agenda for the meeting should be available by April 24, according to a state spokeswoman.

And while the return of racing isn’t yet formally on the commission’s agenda, Egloff says, “I’m sure it will be raised.”

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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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