Horse Racing Gets The Long-Awaited Go-Ahead At Pennsylvania Tracks

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Nearly three months after the last horses galloped across the finish line at a Pennsylvania track, the state has approved the return of live racing at the state’s six venues.

While no official announcement was immediately made public by the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission, the various horsemen’s associations connected to the tracks began hearing late Wednesday that racing was again authorized.

The commission on June 1 submitted health and safety protocols to the Pennsylvania Department of Health that are designed to prevent transmission of COVID-19 among those working at the tracks. It then took 10 days for state health officials to grant the necessary approval.

It will now be up to each of the three thoroughbred and three harness tracks to determine just when to resume racing, and only some of those provided immediate indication Thursday. Racing has already resumed this month, without spectators, in several neighboring states, even while those tracks’ attached casinos remain closed.

A lot of industry people ecstatic

Kim Hankins, executive director of the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association, said harness races will be held at Meadows Racetrack & Casino in Washington County starting at 12:45 p.m. Monday.

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The track will then be on its regular summer schedule of afternoon races on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, but with the card reduced initially to 10 races per day instead of 13.

Nearly 50 race days have been missed at the Meadows since mid-March, with lost purses that would have exceeded $6 million combined, Hankins estimated. Thus, happy reactions abounded when word of the return spread among those at the track on a day of previously scheduled qualifying races Thursday.

“There are a lot of people here and they’re all ecstatic,” Hankins said. “They’re still upset it took so long, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel now, and hopefully things will go well.”

It remained to be announced, however, whether spectators would be allowed for racing at the Meadows, which is the lone racino in the state where casino floor gaming has resumed. Hankins said he is hopeful that if people are already allowed inside the casino for slot machines, table games, and to place bets inside on simulcast racing from across the country, they will be permitted to step outside to view the live racing.

“We’d like to see people have the full experience,” Hankins said. “A lot of people like to be able to walk outside and see the horses.”

Penn National could be next to start

The other five tracks resuming operations likely have no chance of having spectators immediately, as they are in parts of the state where the casinos they are attached to are not permitted to open. Other states that resumed live racing before casinos reopened have not permitted spectators.

Todd Mostoller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, issued a statement that racing would resume Friday, June 19, at suburban Harrisburg’s Penn National Race Course at Hollywood Casino.

“For the first 3 weeks, Penn National will race on Wednesdays and Fridays,” his statement said Thursday. “After that, we will move to racing 3 nights a week. The overnight purse structure will be as it was when racing ceased in March.”

Mostoller’s association is involved in putting on racing at both Penn National and at Presque Isle Downs & Casino. Unlike at Penn National, no horses are stabled at the Erie County thoroughbred track on an ongoing basis and its season had not started at the time of the COVID-19 shutdowns, and the resumption of racing there will take longer.

“We continue to work closely with Presque Isle Downs regarding the opening of the backside and the resumption of the 2020 meet,” Mostoller said.

Start dates to come for three more

Racing is also expected to resume soon at Parx Casino and Racing, Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack, and The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono.

No information was available immediately Thursday on when those will commence, but all of those connected to the industry have been itching to do so as soon as possible.

On their behalf, legislation introduced last month in the state House of Representatives attempted to mandate the return of racing by waiving the governor’s order prohibiting it until the coronavirus pandemic eased as much as state health officials sought. That bill cleared the committee stage but was never voted on by the full House.

Photo provided by Shutterstock

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Gary Rotstein

Gary is a longtime journalist, having spent three decades covering gambling, state government, and other issues for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in addition to stints as managing editor of the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette and as a reporter for United Press International and the Middletown (Conn.) Press. Contact Gary at [email protected].

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