Ohio Horsepeople Enduring Pandemic

The harness racing industry of Ohio, like many other states, has borne the brunt of a world trifled by a pandemic over nearly the last year. But with time, racing returned to the state with accommodations to help keep business running.

“For those that are involved in our industry, they are enthralled with it, it’s their livelihood,” said Steve Bateson, President of the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association (OHHA), to the Ohio Country Journal. “So when we were shut down, all of these farms that are in training continued to train and feed their horses and employ their people and they had no place to race. For our industry it was pretty nerve racking because, not to say we operate on the edge, but most of our industry doesn’t have the ability to just sit idle for months and months, and be able to pay bills without any money coming in.”

Racing came to a halt in Ohio for two months, with occasional but short shutdowns through the 2020 season forced as precautions when track people had contracted COVID-19. With many racetracks not allowing for people to attend the races, the OHHA took extra steps to bring racing from Ohio to anyone with an Internet connection.

“We had a crew, and we ramped it up and we virtually hit every county fair in the state,” Bateson said. “We may not have been able to hit both days, but in most cases we were able to at least be there one day and show those races live. And we got better as the year went on. We had some events in which we had nearly 1,000 people watching live, and within a week of the event, it wasn’t uncommon to have 4,000 to 5,000 views on those fairs.”

With racing booming over recent years thanks to increasing purses in the state along with its sires stakes program—Ohio’s breeding industry hit a crossroad with its annual yearling sale, having to find a means to conduct the auction along with efficiently distributing information on all the yearlings coming through the ring.

“We put in some protocols to keep us and our employees healthy—not allowing a lot of folks on the farm, said Randy Haines, co-owner of Cool Winds Farms. “If you’re dropping off a mare, we are limiting access to one truck driver or one groom. We ship a lot of seamen. We would sit it outside the door, trying really do what the governor asked and wear a mask to practice social distance.

“The biggest change is we video tape every single horse and this year because of the pandemic, and we also had online bidding, we extended that out and a lot of the sales we also did confirmation shots. Which is, we stand them up, get a side view, front and back, and get a headshot. So we spent quite a bit of time, especially with Ohio Selective yearlings, with confirmation shots, to add them to a video. And of course the folks that come to the sale want to inspect the yearlings personally.

“Our sales were up 20% in Ohio this fall,” Randy also said. “Which is the only state in the country where the yearling sales were up significantly.”

Co-owner Kim Haines said that the pandemic potentially boosted the 2020 sales in Ohio, with many cooped inside having the ability to watch racing over the Internet.

“We got a whole bunch of groups of people buying horses,” Kim Haines said. “It’s not just one individual now, it’s maybe five to 10 guys getting together and saying ‘Yeah let’s buy a horse.’”