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How Cal Expo Has Stayed Active

Published: March 26, 2020 9:07 pm ET

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After weeks of racetracks gradually closing their doors across the continent in an effort to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, a single harness track has persisted through unique circumstances.

Cal Expo, located in California’s capital city of Sacramento (where COVID-19 cases have surpassed 2,500), is the sole track conducting live harness racing in North America. The one-mile oval has received permission from the California government to continue racing so long as no coronavirus cases sprout or spread to the track, and it was announced on Thursday that Cal Expo will move to a Tuesday-Wednesday schedule next week.

A handful of Canadian horsemen head south to Cal Expo for the winter, and one of those horsemen is Alberta native Rick Schneider. Given the state of racing in Canada amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he's extremely grateful for the opportunity to race.

“Everybody was scared, we were scared,” Schneider said. “We were on pins and needles for the last two or three weeks because I think California’s been hit hard with it. Stuff just flew off of shelves down here. And us poor horsemen, we race Friday and Saturday and we’re going ‘We got to get purse money out.’ Everybody’s panicking trying to find enough feed and hay if we had to stay for a month, but the money’s all tied up in the grandstand; the grandstand’s shut down. So when we raced last Friday I had never seen that many happy people in the paddock in my entire life. Ever. No arguing...everybody’s going ‘Oh thank goodness we made it to Friday and we’re racing, we get a little shot at something.’

“Giving distance is pretty easy. It’s not like you’re crammed into a small barn. Here we have empty shed rows; everybody’s got a lot of space. Everybody gets along and they’re all old-school trainers,” Schneider continued. “We all know how to keep our distance; we all know viruses because we work with them with horses all the time.”

The community at Cal Expo also distinguishes it from other harness tracks that had to close. About all of the horsemen who compete at Cal Expo live on the grounds, either inside of dorms or their own RVs. State police also patrol the facility (which remains closed to the public), leaving only a single gate through which the track announcer and judges can enter. Horsemen also agreed to have no more than 25 present in the paddock at the time. Plus, the paddock isn’t enclosed.

"Everything's outdoors. The barns are outdoors, the paddocks are outdoors, and I think that makes a difference,” continued Schneider. “Everything’s fresh air.”

With this unique climate allowing Cal Expo to persist, the track has thrived. Though handling roughly $700,000 as the lone harness track on Friday night, they capitalized on Saturday with nearly $1 million in handle.

“The other day I was going to the paddock and I go ‘You guys know we’re the show right now?’” Schneider said. “And they went ‘Holy crap, you’re right!’ These guys here work hard to try and get the handle up as high as possible because their revenue is solely from handle. I shared a bunch of stuff on Facebook about all the handicapping shows that were going on all across the nation, which I thought was just cool as heck. It was absolutely awesome watching all these people handicapping California racing.”

Currently Cal Expo’s race season runs through April 25. However, given the volatile environment nonetheless spurred by the pandemic, Cal Expo has allocated the necessary resources to accommodate horsemen in the event racing has to cease.

“That gives us confidence to stay here and do what we have to do,” Schneider said. “I thought about going home, but then I go ‘I have two loads of horses’ and everything was moving so fast to get out I didn’t know if I could make it with two loads and in the end I wouldn’t have made it. I would’ve had half the horses here and half of the horses somewhere else.”

Cal Expo remains poised to race on Friday (March 27) and Saturday (March 28) as one of the few active racetracks in North America.

“Every day we’re happy to be racing,” Schneider said.

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