The Pennsylvania horse industry’s hope for live racing to return to the state anytime soon — without spectators — has become a long shot few gamblers would want to risk a dollar on.
The wishes of many horse owners, breeders, trainers, and others devoted to racing were essentially snuffed out by a letter Gov. Tom Wolf sent Tuesday to his own appointed secretary of agriculture, Russell Redding, who is also chairman of the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission.
Wolf said racing could resume only along with other entertainment activities in locations that in the future will be green-lighted under the state’s red-yellow-green color code system. For now, 24 counties are in the yellow category, with 13 more to be added Friday, but there’s no indication when any will be coded green.
Wolf likens tracks to theaters, casino
“Pennsylvania must proceed with returning to work cautiously,” Wolf wrote in response to a May 1 letter from Redding and the commission seeking approval to resume racing at the state’s six tracks under special conditions to address COVID-19 concerns.
“As part of this reopening effort, we foresee horse racing reopening when counties enter the green phase, like other entertainment (casinos, theaters, etc.),” Wolf continued.
“I commend the Commission’s efforts to implement mitigation efforts for those who are continuing to care for the horses at this time, and forethought in planning for how to address public health and safety as it relates to each phase of reopening.”
Disappointment spread throughout the horse industry as word of Wolf’s rejection reached those who depend on purse money from racing to provide income and cover the cost of caring for horses.
They had hoped Pennsylvania might follow the lead of West Virginia and Kentucky, where racing has been approved to resume without spectators this week. Certain tracks within California, Florida, Oklahoma, and Nebraska have already been doing the same for weeks despite the shutdown of the rest of the sports world since mid-March.
Horsemen say Wolf lacks understanding
Advocates for racing’s return were particularly thrown by Wolf lumping the racetracks in with venues like casinos and theaters, which cannot operate without patrons.
“He’s basically comparing apples and oranges when he’s comparing the racetrack to the casino,” said Brian Sanfratello, executive secretary of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association.
Pete Peterson, president of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association, said, “If you look at the letter, it doesn’t seem he understands what the actual request has been. … There’s lots of ways to address this without a full-scale reopening, which is what he seems to be referring to.”
Four racetracks had started their seasons by March 16, when a state order suspended their operations like those of casinos and other non-essential businesses over fears from the COVID-19 virus.
Since then, Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course, Parx Racing at Parx Casino, Meadows Racetrack & Casino, and The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono have lost a combined 123 racing days due to the shutdown.
Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack would have started its season April 5 and had lost 21 days, as of Tuesday.
Presque Isle Downs & Casino was originally scheduled to start racing this week.
At the Parx, Penn National, and Meadows tracks, the backside of the facilities has remained open with horses stabled and cared for and living quarters available to the workers. There have been no reports publicized of any cases of COVID-19 connected to the tracks.
Track operations continue behind the scenes anyway
The presence of hundreds of workers at the tracks the past two months with no reported problems presents a further case to allow racing to resume, suggested Salvatore DeBunda, a horse owner and president of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.
“Parx has about 500 people already working there every day wearing masks and doing social distancing to take care of the horses. … With racing, you only need to add 50 or 60 to the 500 already there, like a 10% increase,” said DeBunda, who is also a member of the state’s racing commission.
He and other commissioners agreed at their last meeting April 29 to have Redding make the resumption request to the governor. The letter noted how other states had permitted tracks to continue operating without patrons, “but by exercising proper measures and safety protocols, they were able to do so safely while continuing to generate significant revenues for the respective state, racetracks and their horsemen.”
Redding’s letter compared the racetracks to other outdoor operations like golf courses and marinas — which have been permitted to reopen — rather than likening them to casinos or movie theaters. The tracks are all attached to casinos, but it is not essential for those to be open in order for racing to be conducted.
The governor is “entitled to his point of view, but we’re different from the venues he’s talking about,” DeBunda said. “It’s not logical. I’ve read that the Philadelphia Orchestra is operating with no patrons on stage and beaming performances out to its respective members, and I don’t see why we’re any different. We’re not like casinos that need patrons to survive.”
Financial plights without racing keep worsening
As the weeks pass without racing and the purse money from it, Sanfratello said those whose livelihoods are attached to the sport are becoming increasingly desperate. They cannot reduce the cost of caring for animals just because they’re losing revenue, he said.
“I constantly am getting phone calls from breeders telling me it’s really tough now, and they don’t know how much longer they can go if, in fact, racing doesn’t start fairly soon,” Sanfratello said.
After April’s horse racing commission meeting, the commission had track operators submit their proposed plans for reopening. All of those plans are now indefinitely on hold.
The next meeting of the horse racing commission is scheduled May 26, although DeBunda said it is possible a special meeting will be held before then in light of the governor’s response.
Photo provided by Shutterstock.com