In a Tough Year, Another Bad Week for Pennsylvania Racing

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Parx | Horsephotos

The Week in Review, by Bill Finley

Down to 12 horses and with no income coming in since Parx stopped racing after a Mar. 10 card, trainer Mike Catalano has a simple request. “I just want to go back to living,” he said.

To Catalano, that means having a full barn of horses, racing four days a week and being able to put food on his table. It may not happen any time soon. Last week, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf maintained that racetracks should be in the same category as casinos and movie theaters and will be among the last businesses in the state to reopen. While racing is either back or on schedule to return in virtually every other state, Pennsylvania’s tracks could be closed for months to come.

“We are struggling,” Catalano said. “I’m making plans to go somewhere else, something I don’t want to do. I have a home here and I want race in Pennsylvania. I support Pennsylvania racing 100%.”

Catalano has decided to do something about his predicament. He has organized a rally that will take place Wednesday in front of the Parx casino. He is hoping to have at least 500 people, from both the Thoroughbred and harness racing industries, on hand to help get the message out. He won’t have any problem finding angry horsemen eager to vent.

When the year started, Pennsylvania racing was on firm ground and there was no reason to believe anything would change. Purses were being fattened by a $250-million annual contribution from the casinos and politicians had promised that the casino money was a part of a trust that could not be touched by the state. That all changed in February when Governor Wolf unveiled a budget plan that called for $204 million to be taken away from the racetrack funding and go instead to establish a college scholarship fund for state residents. The loss of the money would be devastating for racing in the state.

“We all got completely blindsided by that,” said trainer Danny Velasquez.

The threat of losing the slot money has also affected the breeding industry. Convincing someone to breed to a Pennsylvania stallion when there were no guarantees that the purses structure was going to remain healthy over the next three or four years became a tough sell. Just last week, Northview Stallion Station, the state’s largest breeding farm, announced it was closing its Pennsylvania operation and, starting next year, would only operate out of its Maryland facility.

“Losing Northview was like losing Pepsi-Cola,” Catalano said.

Then, a bad situation would only grow worse. The coronavirus swept into Pennsylvania and Parx halted racing after a Mar. 10 card. Penn National shut down after racing Mar. 14. Like horsemen everywhere, Parx trainers were faced with trying to survive at a time when no money was coming in. Horses were sent to farms. Grooms and exercise riders were laid off. Owners transferred horses to trainers based at tracks that continued to race.

“I’m down to 10 horses,” Velasquez said. “Before this happened, I would have between 21 and 24. The only reason I have 10 is that I own equity in them. But that’s a problem. I’m not getting the full day rate for those horses. I might only be getting 33% or 50%.”

Velasquez did the only thing he could do, hang in there and hope for a resumption of racing, something that he thought had to happen sooner rather than later. That changed Wednesday when Wolf replied to a letter sent to him by Pennsylvania Racing Commission Chairman Russell Redding stating the case being made by racing interests that it was safe to begin racing again. Wolf wrote that the tracks will not be allowed to reopen until the counties they were in reached “green” status. Wolf has said that the counties will reopen in three stages, red, yellow and green. He has yet to lay out what criteria must be achieved to reach green status, but has said the green phase will be when most restrictions have been lifted and all businesses can open.

Parx and Penn National are both in counties that remain in the red phase, which may mean they will not emerge into green status for at least a few months.

“New York is the epicenter of this virus and they are going to be open June 1 and they are going to run at Saratoga,” Velasquez said. “It’s mind blowing that they are going to be able to run in New York before Parx can.”

With Wolf having announced his intention of taking away the bulk of the racing industry’s casino money and following that up with a decree that racing cannot restart any time soon, horsemen are wondering if he has an anti-racing agenda.

“He will hide and say, ‘I am banning all the sports and not just racing’, but it does feel like it’s a personal vendetta against horse racing,” Velasquez said.

“I would hate to think, in this day and age, that that is the case, that he’s out to get racing,” Catalano said. “I don’t think the governor fully understands the economic impact that horse racing has. We provide thousands and thousands of jobs and control almost 30% of all agriculture in the state. I think the governor is not fully aware of what he is dealing with. I like to hope he is more uninformed than vindictive.”

With Wolf having put racing in the green category, more and more Parx based trainers are looking for other options. Some are applying for stalls at Delaware Park, which announced Saturday that it would begin racing June 17. Monmouth, which is set to open over the July 4 weekend, is another option.

“I’ll just ship out of here,” trainer Ron Abrams said. “I have applied for stalls at Delaware Park. I had a good year last year, but it’s all being dissolved. You have to keep paying the bills and keep taking good care of the horses in anticipation that we will have racing. The governor should let what can safely open open.”

Will horsemen come back when racing restarts in Pennsylvania and, if so, what will they be coming back to? Prior to the coronavirius outbreak, there were signs that horsemen and their lobbyists were making progress in their efforts to stop Wolf from raiding the casino fund. Now, with Pennsylvania facing a large budget deficit due to expenditures related to the coronavirus, it’s going to be a lot harder to convince the state’s political leaders that the best use of that money is to put it toward horse racing. A possible outcome is greatly reduced purses.

“I am extremely worried about the future of horse racing in this state,” said trainer Marya Montoya. “Honestly every owner I have and everybody I know says Wolf is not for horse people at all. It’s true. Right before this his hit it looked like there would only be a tiny cut from the slots money and we were not going to lose everything. Now, with this epidemic we don’t know where we stand.”

Montoya is among those planning to attend Wednesday’s rally. She wants everyone to know about trainers like herself. She is down to six horses and says she has just enough money to “pay for their hay, oats and water.” She plans to stick things out at Parx and try to get by until racing resumes. If only she had some idea when that would be.

The Quadruple Crown

It appears that the GI Belmont S. will open the Triple Crown either June 22 or June 29, followed by the GI Kentucky Derby Sept. 5 and then the GI Preakness Oct. 3. If so, that would mean that the GI Travers S. would fit in nicely between the Belmont and the Derby, maybe July 25 or Aug. 1 Jack Knowlton, the co-owner of Tiz the Law, said his horse might aim for all four races and it’s possible others will do the same.

To win all four would be a tremendous accomplishment and it appears doable. American Pharoah tried it in 2015, but finished second in the Travers. Affirmed tried it in 1978 but was disqualified and placed second in his Travers behind Alydar for interference. The only horse to win the three Triple Crown races and the Travers is Whirlaway, the 1941 Triple Crown winner.

After being so quiet for so long due to the coronavirus shutting down so many racetracks, the 3-year-old schedule is going to start getting crowded. It may be that the GI Haskell Invitational and even the GII Blue Grass S. are going to have to be wedged in between Triple Crown races, which won’t be easy. There is also the GI Pennsylvania Derby, which is scheduled for Sept. 26. That would be three weeks afer the Kentucky Derby and one week before the Preakness, a date that just doesn’t work. It would come as no surprise if that race were not run this year.

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