The 54th running of The Adios at the Meadows Racetrack & Casino Saturday will be like no other for western Pennsylvania’s signature racing event, and it’s part of the new normal for the state’s horse industry.
When nine of the East Coast’s top 3-year-old standardbred colts cross the finish line of the Washington County track shortly after 4 p.m., there will be only invited guests cheering instead of thousands of race fans in the grandstand and on the apron.
The racebook area will be closed, taking no bets on the day of the $375,000 race.
Even inside the Washington County casino, which has large windows overlooking the track from restaurants and a concourse, no one will be watching other than on televisions. Temporary curtains will be hung on the windows to discourage crowds from gathering to watch.
The changes are all part of the COVID-19 era, which threw Pennsylvania’s six racetracks off stride for three to four months. Presque Isle Downs & Casino was the last of them to return to racing Monday.
Some races canceled, some reduce the hoopla
While the Erie County thoroughbred track’s return means racing is again on the card at all six racinos in the state, the industry isn’t the same as it was pre-COVID. Some big race events have been canceled this year, such as the biggest stakes races at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono. And those big races that are continuing will lack their usual atmosphere.
“We know the heritage of The Adios, we know the excitement it brings to the community,” Meadows spokesman Kevin Brogan said while explaining the decision to close access to and viewing of the track Saturday.
“It’s a great event, one we love to celebrate every year, but given the restrictions on alcohol service, on limiting events to 250 people outdoors, it’s [a decision] we think best for our team, guests, and the community — to just restrict access to the racetrack operation on a day we typically love to celebrate.”
On its regular weekday race days, the Meadows is actually still allowing patrons into its outdoor grandstand to watch the horses, which is not the case at many other tracks. There are normally so few attendees most days that it’s easy for everyone present to observe social distancing, and the apron is still closed off, Brogan said.
“We’re not trying to make it a spot where you hang out and make it a day,” he stressed. “It’s really set up for people who are here to wager. … It’s not really family friendly.”
But the outside access, as well as the indoor simulcast racebook, is shut down every Saturday for the time being because of the bigger risk of unmanageable crowds gathering. Even that simulcast area was shut down every day for a week in early July, due to rising COVID concerns in the region, but subsequently reopened on weekdays.
Things mostly going as well as hoped
The Meadows was the first of the state’s tracks to resume operations June 15 after a longer-than-anticipated shutdown of the industry starting in mid-March, as the entire sports world was frozen by unprecedented health and safety concerns.
Horsemen pleaded unsuccessfully for weeks with Gov. Tom Wolf to allow the tracks to resume under special safeguards, as had taken place in other states, before state officials relented on June 10.
Tracks began returning on different dates subsequently, location by location, but with tweaks to their operations.
In addition to new health protocols affecting everyone in the tracks’ backside areas, some tracks have reduced racing days or set smaller race purses. That’s because, due to months of COVID-caused casino shutdown, they will receive less money this year from the 10% of slots revenue normally allocated to the horse industry.
Despite such effects, those in the industry are generally happy to be back in business doing what they love and depend on for income.
“I think things are going as good as or better as hoped,” said Salvatore DeBunda, a member of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission who is also president of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association as owner of horses that race at Parx in Bucks County.
One bright spot, he said, is there apparently have been no positive COVID cases connected to any of the racetracks’ operations.
Parx has reduced race purses by 28% in order to ensure sufficient funds are available the remainder of the year, he said, but he noted that still gives a lot more horsemen a chance to make money than reducing the number of race days. Parx is making up for lost days during the spring, meanwhile, by continuing its race schedule next month instead of taking off the customary three weeks of August.
“I think the only concern of owners and trainers and operators is they would like to get back to seeing full patrons as soon as they can,” DeBunda said. “That’s been a disappointment, but as far as racing, things seem to be going pretty well.”
Aesthetics are missing, in addition to some money
Kim Hankins, executive director of the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association, representing the horsemen there, said purses are affected by the lack of spectators because more money is retained at the track from their on-site bets than from wagers placed through simulcasts around the country.
The same additional benefit is missing from local off-track betting, as the Meadows OTB in suburban Pittsburgh is closed due to COVID concerns, like many of its counterparts around the state. Parx, in fact, has closed its Oaks Race & Sportsbook in Montgomery County for good. The Downs at Lehigh Valley, which is part of Mohegan Sun Pocono and also has a sportsbook, is the one OTB in operation.
In general, Hankins said, purses at the Meadows have been reduced 10% as a budget planning precaution this year since racing resumed.
Hankins said The Adios is hardly alone as a big racing event running without a crowd this year, but there’s no avoiding it.
“It doesn’t affect the horses’ performance and the drivers’ performance – it’s just the aesthetic aspect where everybody would like to see a crowd,” he said. “It’s simply the world we live in right now, and it’s a shame.”
In addition, the Meadows is taking bets prior to the race in its racebook Thursday and Friday, an option it does not normally provide. Bets may also be placed online Saturday at Xpressbet.com or Hollywoodraces.com.
Just to show further what a tough and strange year it’s been, however, one notable horse that had been scheduled to race in The Adios had to drop out this week due to injury. That colt, Papi Rob Hanover, had set a Meadows track record of 1:47.1 in winning its elimination race last Saturday.
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