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Impact Of COVID-19 On U.S. Racing

Published: March 20, 2020 10:00 am ET

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Post Time with Mike and Mike presented by the USTA devoted its show Thursday (March 19) to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and its impact on harness racing. North America’s leading trainer Ron Burke, veterinarian Dr. Barry Carter, and Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association Executive Director Renee Mancino were guests on the show, hosted by Mike Bozich and Michael Carter.

Following are excerpted comments from each of the guests, edited for length and clarity.

As of Thursday, eight harness racing tracks in North America were still racing: Miami Valley Raceway and Northfield Park in Ohio, Cal Expo in California, Rosecroft Raceway in Maryland, and Saratoga Casino Hotel in New York plus Canada’s Woodbine Mohawk Park, The Raceway at the Western Fair District, and Rideau Carleton Raceway.

Late Thursday, three of those tracks -- Mohawk, Western Fair and Miami Valley -- announced plans to suspend live harness racing as of Friday. Rideau and Rosecroft suspended racing on Friday morning.


On how the pandemic is affecting the stable’s operation: We had probably 30 three-year-olds ready to qualify and stakes races were scheduled to start in April so it’s going to be an issue. But there are way bigger issues for us as a country to handle right now than my problems. So now we’re in a holding pattern, just trying to keep our horses healthy and happy and make sure all our people stay healthy too.

On procedures to keep people safe: What we’re trying to do is not mingle the barns as much as we used to. We’re not sending people to help the other barns. Every barn is pretty much an island to itself now so they can try to keep their group healthy and not spread (the virus). In Jersey, it looks right now they have a bigger problem, especially in the harness racing world, than we do in Pennsylvania. In Washington County (Pa.) we have only two confirmed cases. We’re not going to try to bring Jersey people here. We don’t want to be part of the problem, we hope to be more part of the solution.

On caring for horses if there are further restrictions limiting public movement: Pretty much it will be family members here and then a couple trainers. You’re going to have to have somebody that can at least feed them and at least keep their stalls decently clean and make sure they’re all right. I pray that it doesn’t get to that. People understand these horses can’t feed themselves, they can’t get themselves water, and they can’t take care of themselves. As much as I’d like us to all just go sit home for months, it would probably be the best thing, it’s not realistic. The horses need care and we’re their caregivers and we have make sure everything stays good for them too.

On changes to the care and training of the horses: With the horses, we have backed off a little bit. Being honest, I don’t know when we’re going to race. I want to walk the line and have these horses fresh, but the minute (racetracks) go back to racing, it’s a financial thing for us too. We’re losing a lot of money every week right now. We can withstand probably better than some stables taking the hit, but the problem is that being the biggest barn there will come a point where we’re taking the biggest hit. These horses have got to be fed, these employees still need their cheque, they still have to eat; I want to keep paying everybody so I’m trying to hope we can hang on until racing comes back. And then when racing comes back, I want my horses to be sharp and ready to go. I don’t want to have a lag where I’m two weeks behind. I want from day one (when tracks reopen) to be able to enter all mine.

We don’t race every week like we used to, horses don’t get 40 to 45 starts, so I’ve had to learn to prep horses for starts for races a month between or 45 days between. So that doesn’t bother me. I can read when we’re giving them too much (work) or we’re not giving them enough. I’ll just let each horse tell me what they want and how they feel like they want to be trained right now, and we’ll go from there.


On safe practices: It’s really no different than the public health concerns with people. We’re adopting the same policies, social distancing, the cleaning of inanimate objects like pitchforks, muck buckets, those things, to try to prevent the spread between caretakers and trainers, the people around (the horses). From the standpoint of the horses, the COVID-19 that we’re dealing with is not a disease that affects horses. It’s about aseptic care to make sure it’s not spread among people. The horses are safe from the disease and aren’t going to contract the disease.

One thing nice about the horse situation is we’ve usually got four or five horses to a caretaker. Those people need to stay away from each other and they need to clean the inanimate objects, feed tubs, water buckets, pitchforks, brooms, muck buckets in between. They need to be diligent in washing their hands. Just the same things they are advocating for people for public health. The biggest thing is staying away from other people. I’m a guy that goes and shakes hands with my clients, I hug people that I know, and I haven’t done any of that for a week or two now. I’ll speak to clients and they’ll be 10 to 15 feet away from me.


On the situation in Ohio: We are still racing in Ohio. It is an hour-by-hour situation. We are first and foremost concerned about the human participants. I think that in this realm, we unfortunately had to cut our teeth on the EHV-1 (Equine Herpes Virus) scenario, which was two years ago. We’re kind of approaching this in the same way, under the same protocol that we would as if there were an equine contagious disease situation. That’s basically the approach we’ve taken all the way through. But we absolutely will act at all times in the best interests of the human participants. So, if you do see Ohio (stop racing), you know that’s why.

On precautions to prevent the spread of the virus: I think everybody that has been watching any of the news channels has been well versed in what to do for COVID-19. Social distancing is the buzzword that has been used in Ohio a lot. You have to live your life as if you’re somewhat removed from people. I have to say, my participants in Ohio have been absolutely fantastic at just being able to handle and do whatever it is that we had to do to comply with these orders in place. It’s not me keeping things going or my board or my employees, who are stellar, it’s my horsemen doing what they should be doing. Whether you’re in racing or in the community, that’s what we rely on, each other to do the things that are right to prevent the spread of this contagious disease. That’s what it’s all about now.

On the mood and morale: I think generally speaking, horse racing and horsemen, they’re a microcosm of society. So, you see basically the same things going on within our community that you see in society as a whole. One thing I will say, though, with the horsemen’s community, even more so than the general community at large, is they really rally around and really try to help each other. They really try to do what’s right for everybody else.

On what harness racing will take away from this situation: As with most things, and I think society is going to do the same thing, we do need, as I say, a 9-1-1 plan. My track reps that are at the racetracks throughout the state or the fairs know that if something comes up that they can’t handle, it’s a 9-1-1 and we have a protocol. You put the protocol in place for the disaster relief, potential disaster handling, and everything that comes with it. I think in society as a whole we’re going to be looking to do that and keep up to date on those things as a routine part of life. I think as a society we’ve all become pretty comfortable with the safe and pretty free environment that we’ve had, and I think things like this change that.


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