By Dan Ross
When Victor Espinoza rolled through the gates of Los Alamitos racecourse on the afternoon of Saturday, July 4, he did so anticipating a quick in-and-out with few disruptions. The Triple Crown-winning jockey had two mounts, in the eighth and ninth races, neither of them hot fancies.
Approaching the jocks’ room, however, Espinoza paused.
“There wasn’t enough room for all of us,” said Espinoza of the room’s quarters, which had been split between Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred riders. “We were stacked in there like sardines.”
Events from that afternoon have played out like a serialized medical drama, with one jockey after another testing positive for COVID-19, first Martin Garcia, then Luis Saez–both of them riders from out of state.
Espinoza’s two rides yielded no wins that day and he returned home as usual. Two days later, “it hit me pretty bad,” he said of symptoms including headaches and body pain.
Aware of Garcia’s positive diagnosis, Espinoza sought his own test–positive–after which he alerted Del Mar management.
A weekend of live racing later, Del Mar tested all of the track’s jockeys and jock’s room personnel, with 15 riders proving positive for COVID-19, all reportedly asymptomatic.
Many in the industry have been quick to point the finger of blame at Los Alamitos–something Dr. Ed Allred, who owns and operates Los Alamitos, takes umbrage with.
“Our track doctor [Michael Morris] assures me he was careful,” said Allred, who added that, while hindsight would suggest prior jockey testing and better social distancing in the jock’s room might have been wise, the vagaries of the virus–which includes an incubation period of between 2-14 days–mean that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when and where the infections occurred.
“The idea that this has started at Los Alamitos is poppycock,” he said.
Los Alamitos had suffered only one positive test–a backstretch worker in early May–prior to the track’s short two-week Thoroughbred meet, said Allred. Last week, Los Alamitos conducted tests on 49 riders and various track employees–mandatory for the former, voluntary for the latter–which yielded nine positives, all of them jockeys, he added.
But now that racing in California has entered into a second temporary suspension of live racing, coupled with the recent patchwork of subsequent positives, tough questions are being asked over the industry’s response so far, and its plan of action into the future.
Certainly, there have made missteps–lost tests, misguided protocols, slow lines of communication.
At the same time, industry figures are quick to highlight the unprecedented nature of this public health crisis, including the slippery complications of shifting guidelines from a variety of local, state and federal agencies, along with limited and sometimes inaccurate testing availability and equipment.
Still, lessons can be learned, experts say. As the pandemic in the U.S. shows no sign of abating, and as medical resources continue to run thin, these lessons will need to be adopted quickly, especially as the industry in California remains under a public microscope unlike any other jurisdiction in the country.
“Racing is not an essential service,” warned Dr. Ghazala Sharieff, corporate vice president and chief medical officer at San Diego’s Scripps Health, who has provided Del Mar with medical guidance. Individual responsibility, she added, is paramount.
“If people can’t follow the guidelines, and we have all these outbreaks, the better part might be to unfortunately say, ‘No more racing.'”
When the pandemic closed Santa Anita’s doors at the end of March, the impetus was to resume live racing as quickly and safely as possible, said Aidan Butler, acting executive director of California racing for The Stronach Group (TSG).
“We made a statement when we were shut down, and it was a true statement,” said Butler, pointing to the industry’s fragile economic ecosystem. “‘You’ve got to get us going or we’re going to have a humanitarian and animal welfare issue.'”
By and large, the protocols that Santa Anita built into the race-day furniture, including the mandatory testing of jockeys before each weekend of live racing and the efforts to separate the front side community from the backstretch, were warmly received. Terry Meyocks, CEO of the Jockey’s Guild, held them up as a possible gold standard other tracks should seek to emulate where possible.
The porous nature of the backstretch, however–with veterinarians, trainers, exercise riders and farriers coming and going daily–is an Achilles heel of every track. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, there were 38 confirmed infections at Santa Anita, with 10 symptomatic cases awaiting confirmation. Testing problems suggest this could be an undercount.
According to trainer Ben Cecil, when his foreman tested positive for COVID-19 near the end of May, he sent his team of eight employees to be tested by Santa Anita’s own medical personnel.
However, when Cecil checked on the results some 10 days later, he was told the samples had been lost, he said.
“By the time I found that out, there wasn’t much point in testing everybody again,” he said.
None of the untested employees became sick, he added.
“I think personally, our guys on the ground might have been slightly overwhelmed with the level of pressure and stress they were under,” admitted Butler, about the lost samples. “But I think as we moved forward, we became far better at it.”
Arguably the greatest obstacle to backstretch testing appears to be limited testing capacity within LA County as a whole–a problem since the start of the pandemic.
When one of trainer Jim Cassidy’s exercise riders returned from a weekend trip to Las Vegas carrying the virus, Cassidy sent his other employees to the nearby Methodist Hospital in Arcadia, opposite the racetrack–what had hitherto been a popular testing destination for the backstretch community–only for the workers to be turned away.
“They were told that there were too many race-trackers coming over to get tested,” said Cassidy. “They never did get tested.”
TDN reached out to Methodist Hospital for comment, but did not receive a response before deadline.
According to Cliff Goodrich, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Foundation (CTHF), which is responsible for backstretch healthcare, Methodist Hospital adopted a policy of testing only those who are symptomatic.
“It’s frustrating when you’re doing what the health department calls for to test anybody who came in close contact with an individual who tested positive, and then have a hospital say, ‘We’re only testing those showing symptoms,'” said Goodrich.
“There’s always room for improvement”
Besides the daily traffic in and out of the backstretch, live racing has maintained open channels between tracks, none more so than between Santa Anita and Los Alamitos, which maintained live racing throughout the pandemic. Los Alamitos carded additional Thoroughbred races during the evenings–races that proved popular with several Santa Anita-based trainers.
As the latest Santa Anita meet drew to a close, Santa Anita convened a “Working Group” consisting of key representatives from Del Mar, Los Alamitos, California Thoroughbred Trainers and the CTHF to share information.
According to Josh Rubinstein, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club president, Santa Anita provided overall testing numbers and individual results in a timely way.
“Santa Anita management was also great about sharing what they felt were best practices from their experience,” he wrote in an email.
Since the Del Mar stable area opened its doors June 26, five backstretch employees have tested positive, confirmed Rubinstein.
Some industry figures, however, argue that vital information could and should have been shared much sooner among all necessary stakeholders. The first working group call occurred on June 20, with closing day at Santa Anita just one day later.
According to Jack Liebau, Vice President of the Los Alamitos Racjng Association, while Santa Anita told them there were COVID positives, he was unaware of the extent of the infection within Santa Anita’s backstretch until “Yahoo News” alerted him to an LA Times report July 13.
When asked whether Los Alamitos had similarly shared with other associations information concerning the backstretch employee who had tested positive, Liebau responded that the individual “was not known” to go to either Santa Anita or Del Mar. “Los Al backside is pretty much a self contained one,” he wrote in an email.
Privacy restrictions through the Health Insurance Privacy and Portability Act (HIPPA) pose barriers to the free flow of information, explained various officials, despite these laws having been relaxed in response to the pandemic.
“The original intent was to build something of a database that specific associations would have access to,” said Butler. “Unfortunately, the lawyers put the fear of God into everybody, including ourselves.”
Still, “there’s always room for improvement,” said Goodrich, about the way information has been shared among necessary stakeholders, adding that patient permission would also help to open those lines of communication further. “It would become easier to share information among a key group.”
“Why do we need to move from place to place?”
As the fallout from the July 4 weekend unfolded, several of Del Mar’s jockey COVID protocols proved a lightning-rod for criticism, none more so than the decision not to conduct mandatory testing of jockeys before opening day.
“If I was a reckless person, then I could have just gone and ridden opening day,” said Espinoza, adding how by that time, his symptoms had disappeared. “Nobody would have known I was infected, even myself.”
According to Sharieff, the reasons behind the decision not to mandate uniform jockey testing were largely two-fold. One concerns the possible deceptive nature of negative test results.
“Just because you get a negative test one day, does not mean even the same day or the next day you can’t start having symptoms,” Sharieff said. “There’s that period in-between testing where you can infect a ton of people and think you’re safe.”
The other surrounds restricted testing capability in San Diego County.
“As we get even tighter on tests now–we just got notified about a shortage, we’re down to less than a month of supplies–we’re going to tell you, ‘If you have symptoms, you need to stay home and self-quarantine,'” she said. “Even the governor now says not to do asymptomatic testing.”
Santa Anita contracted out the weekly testing of jockeys to a private company. When asked how limited capacity in the county might impact Del Mar’s intended weekly jockey testing, Rubinstein wrote that, “We are confident that we’ll be able to source testing resources as needed.”
“I get it, people are social”
As the track gears up towards a resumption of live racing next weekend, what specific lessons can be gleaned from the industry’s response thus far?
The TDN asked the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) about what guidance the agency has provided during the pandemic.
CHRB spokesperson Mike Marten responded, “We issued an advisory Mar. 26 stating that local health authorities have jurisdiction in these matters, but that we would assist them on request. We have had communications with local health authorities and assisted when requested to do so, but the principal contact is between the track and health authority. The CHRB has taken direct action at racetracks to protect CHRB employees, including the closure of licensing offices when warranted.”
The CHRB failed to respond to multiple follow-up questions, including further agency guidance.
According to Liebau, effective action boils down to “more and more testing, and more transparency in the results of that testing.”
Liebau also posited an idea to limit the movement of people: isolate live racing to one facility.
“If we don’t have spectators, why do we need to move from place to place?” he said.
Butler said that regulations at Santa Anita will continue to be tweaked. He highlighted an intended additional precaution at Golden Gate Fields, whereby those who don’t live on the backstretch will be required to wear face shields along with their masks.
At the end of the day, said Sharieff, the more we practice individual responsibility–wearing masks, rigorous hand hygiene and social distancing–the greater the likelihood of stemming further spread of the virus.
“I get it, people are social,” said Sharieff. “It’s across the board, people feeling like, ‘The county’s opening up, we’re safe.’ But that’s actually the wrong message, and now we’re closing back down again for the same reason–people aren’t being careful. And if [individuals] wants to keep racing, they’re going to have to do better.”