Horse Racing Off to Slow Start in California

May 22, 2020 Updated: May 25, 2020

Horse racing is back on track at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California, but without fans in the stands.

Mike Willman, Santa Anita spokesman, told The Epoch Times every precaution has been taken to protect the jockeys and stable workers since the races resumed on May 15 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The new normal is no public admittance. The people who own the horses are not admitted; they’re not allowed in the stable area; they’re not allowed on the grounds,” he said. “It’s just very, very strict for the present time. There are no Winner’s Circle ceremonies of any kind. Human contact is kept to an absolute minimum.”

“The jockeys are all quarantined,” he said.

“Once they come into the quarantine area, they’re committed to stay there and live on the grounds. We’ve provided a number of trailers in close proximity to the jockeys’ room, which adjoins the paddock,” Willman said. “They are all riding with masks and gloves and maintaining social distances, so it’s pretty severe.”

The jockeys stay in quarantine throughout the usual Friday to Sunday race week. “Then they come back the following week,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
The horse Maximum Security, who is trained by Bob Baffert, at the Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. (Courtesy of Zoe Metz/Santa Anita Park)

On any given race week, there are usually about 30 to 35 jockeys at Santa Anita, Willman said.

“I’ve really got to give a lot of credit to our jockeys who are making big, big sacrifices. Everybody realizes that in order to be back in action and to remain in action, we’ve got to really strictly adhere to these protocols,” he said.

On Memorial Day weekend Irad Ortiz Jr., a prominent Puerto Rican jockey and a leading rider in the New York Thoroughbred horse racing circuit, will ride at Santa Anita.

“He’ll be kept at quite a distance from the other jockeys the one day that he is here. He’ll ride and then fly out,” Willman said.

With the races shut down for almost two months, the drop in revenue has been substantial.

“Food and beverage sales are a big part of our pie as well, and obviously, that’s nil for now.”

“I can’t give you any numbers, but obviously it has been a tremendous hit,” Willman said. “We’ve been shuttered by the Los Angeles County Dept. of Health since March 27.”

One upside is that even though fans can’t attend the events, they can still use apps to place their bets online. Even before the pandemic, the majority of bets were made online.

“Well over 90 percent of the money wagered on these races was not wagered on-track; it was wagered online. So, we are well-suited to resume business in that context,” Willman said.

Willman said strict safety guidelines also apply to Santa Anita’s stable workers.

“We’re doing everything we can to minimize the chance of infection with hand-sanitizing, daily temperature monitoring, masks, and gloves, and that goes for everybody, even the guys who work on the starting gate,” he said.

Willman credited Los Angeles County Commissioner Kathryn Barger for her efforts to allow the horse races to resume.

“We’re in her district, so we’ve been negotiating with her all along from the point of the shutdown via the Health Department,” Willman said.

“For the foreseeable future there’s not going to be any spectators. We’re just trying to stay within the guidelines,” Willman said. “The main thing is to stay safe and to prevent any proliferation of this virus whatsoever.”

Santa Anita is owned by The Stronach Group (TSG), which also owns Golden Gate Fields in the San Francisco Bay Area and Gulfstream Park in southern Florida.

Gulfstream Park has been open all along, which has helped the company weather the economic storm caused by the pandemic. “They were never closed,” he said.

Willman is encouraged to see other race tracks begin to open up across the country.

“We’re seeing more and more tracks open up and the New York Racing Association (NYRA) has announced that they will be opening on June 1,” he said.

Del Mar Race Track

Carrie Jones, a public relations spokesperson for Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in San Diego County, said in an email the Del Mar Race Track is probably two months away from reopening for racing and that “everything is a work in progress.”

Jones provided a statement by the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club (DMTC) saying it plans to work with public health officials and the California Horse Racing Board as it gets closer to reopening for races.

“We are encouraged by the recent resumption of racing at Golden Gate and Santa Anita under strict COVID-19 safety protocols and that other tracks across the country have been able to operate safely with similar measures in place,” the DMTC said.

“Del Mar Thoroughbred Club has similar plans developed in conjunction with leading health experts and we will continue to follow the public health guidelines recommended by state and local officials. We intend to hold our summer race meet with a steadfast commitment to ensure the safety and welfare of our workforce, the public, and our equine and human athletes, even if that requires racing without spectators at our facility.”

“We will race in July,” Jones added.