By Christie DeBernardis
On Mar. 19, the New York Racing Association suspended racing for an undetermined period after a backstretch worker tested positive for COVID-19, which left New York horsemen scrambling to adjust and come up with Plan B for themselves, their horses and their staff. Nine days later–following the announcement that Aqueduct had been approved as a temporary hospital site–NYRA announced that the rest of the Aqueduct winter meet would be canceled and the Ozone Park oval would not host its traditional spring meet, headlined by the GII Wood Memorial S.
“On Mar. 28, NYRA announced the cancellation of live racing at Aqueduct Racetrack through the remainder of the winter and spring meets,” said NYRA spokesperson Pat McKenna. “This action was taken following Governor Cuomo’s announcement that the Aqueduct facility will be converted to a temporary hospital to increase hospital bed capacity in Queens.”
He continued, “As such, live racing is currently suspended through Apr. 19. NYRA is continuing to strategize options for a return to live racing, but any announcements or adjustments to the schedule moving forward will be arrived at only after consultation with state and local health departments. The health and safety of the entire racing community is our primary concern as New York continues to face unprecedented challenges and uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
This means there will be no racing in the Empire State until Belmont’s spring meet, at the earliest, which is currently scheduled to open Apr. 24. In the interim, trainers have to get creative with their program at home, continue to monitor strings they have at other racetracks and implement new policies to protect their staff’s health, as well as their own.
Since the original positive test on the backside, six more backstretch workers have tested positive for COVID-19 with four recovering off property and three in quarantine at Belmont Park. Many trainers have their staff wearing masks and gloves and have implemented extra sanitization processes to aid in preventing any further spread.
Leading New York conditioner Linda Rice said the humans’ routine at the track has changed much more than the horses’ in light of this pandemic.
“In regards to the horses and their training, there has been very little change to their daily routine. We have had to make some changes as far as the employees,” said Rice, who clinched her second straight Aqueduct winter title during the recently concluded meet. “We had to restrict them from congregating in enclosed areas like the tack room and the room with the facial recognition time clock. There has also been extra time spent on cleanliness and disinfecting all equipment. The staff are all wearing masks and gloves.”
New York stalwart Gary Gullo has been trying to get the daily barn work done as quickly as possible to protect his staff.
“My main concern is just trying to get my help in and out and not have that many around at once,” Gullo said. “We are doing a little extra work, but we are just trying to make it easier for my staff, so they don’t get sick. It is tough for them because they are in close quarters and I worry about that. I have a lot of disinfectants that we use on the shanks and stuff. We are disinfecting everything and everyone has gloves on.”
He continued, “I am just trying to do what everyone is doing and try not to go out that much. We start at 5:30 a.m. and we try to be done by 8 a.m. I go back when no one is there around 11 a.m. and again at 5 p.m. to check the horses and make sure they all ate well and have no issues.”
Though the humans have been more heavily affected, horses have been impacted as well. Many conditioners are taking this time to freshen up their stock or give them a brief break.
“I did send out a few horses that I had in training for quite some time, such as [MSW] Newly Minted (Central Banker),” Rice said. “She had been here [training at Belmont] for over a year. I planned to run her in April and then send her to the farm for the summer. We sent her out last week instead. We had a few horses like that who had been in training for quite a while and were due to get a vacation, so those were the horses we sent out. As for the rest of them, the ones who are on stakes schedules, we backed off their breezes a little bit as we wait for a more definite schedule for them moving forward.”
One of the horses whose breeze schedule was backed up a bit is GIII Withers S. victor Max Player (Honor Code), who was scheduled to make his next start in the Wood Memorial Saturday. The dark bay breezed Wednesday, covering six panels in 1:16.44. His last work prior to that was Mar. 18 when he went seven furlongs in 1:27.20.
“Max Player breezed Wednesday and we are basically in a holding pattern until we hear from NYRA about what the schedule will be at Belmont,” Rice said. “We know the [GI Kentucky] Derby is in the fall [Sept. 5], so we will see if there will be any adjustments to the Belmont schedule.”
Gullo is using the downtime to ease up on his horses’ training, giving them a walk week and then moving on to some jogging.
“What I’m doing is freshening up the horses a little bit,” the conditioner said. “I walked them for a little bit and am jogging them. I am trying to keep them fresh. My guess, which is just my personal opinion, is they are going to open at Belmont around May 1 with no spectators, so I am gauging my horses to run then.”
Gullo continued, “I sent one to the farm that wasn’t going to really run. If I knew it was going to be longer, I would send more to the farm, but the thing is, none of us know what it is going to happen. You have to be ready because once we send these horses to the farm, it is a good two to three months before we will have them ready again. Nobody has an answer as to when this is going to end. We are all in the same boat.”
Gullo commended the NYRA team for their work during this crisis to keep the horsemen and their staffs safe, as well as implement protocol which he hopes can aid in a return to racing.
“The only thing I can say is at Belmont, I think these guys are really on top of things,” Gullo said. “Maybe they can make a tent just for valets and have the jockeys go in the jocks room and be separated. No spectators and we can have just the trainers or assistant trainers saddle the horses, put the riders up and just go. If we go to protocol like that, maybe we can start running again sooner.”
While the trainers who stick it out in New York all winter are battening down the hatches and doing their best to weather the storm, those that left the Empire State for sunnier climates have delayed their returns. Typically the first week of April would see a flood of horses and humans returning to the Belmont backside, but most of those operations are sheltering in place at Gulfstream–which is still racing–or one of the Florida training centers surrounding it.
“Things are currently going well,” said Todd Pletcher, who won another championship meet title in Hallandale this winter. “We have horses at Palm Beach Downs and Gulfstream. We are more or less able to maintain our normal routine with common-sense protocols in place, such as making sure employees aren’t congregating in tack rooms or hanging around each other too closely. We are making sure they alert us if anyone is not feeling 100%. We have been fortunate here so far.”
After NYRA’s decision to suspend racing Mar. 19, Pletcher closed down his Belmont barn, where he maintains a string throughout the winter months under the care of his assistant Byron Hughes.
“There were some cases on the backstretch and some concerns in our barn,” Pletcher said. “We had to quarantine a couple of employees there. One tested negative and we have not received the results on one. It became an environment where some people were concerned about coming in. With no racing on the horizon, we felt it was the safest thing for our employees to close the Belmont barn and move some horses around. We want to make sure the horses get the best care and are exercised on a daily basis. It just seemed like the responsible thing to do on all angles.”
The horses at the Belmont barn were dispersed based on the individual owners. Some of Pletcher’s owners who operate their own farms, such as Barry Schwartz and WinStar, chose to take their horses home for the time being. Other horses joined Pletcher at Palm Beach Downs or were sent to his father’s Ocala training center. A few of Mike Repole’s New York-breds remained in the Big Apple with trainer Rudy Rodriguez.
In the meantime, Pletcher will remain in Florida and take advantage of Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs, which, as of now, will continue to race with no spectators.
“Right now, we are training as though we still have the option of racing at Gulfstream, which is our primary racing place up until April anyway, so nothing has changed much there,” the seven-time Eclipse winner said. “As long as we are afforded the ability to race at Gulfstream, we will continue to do that. We will also consider looking at some races at Oaklawn if we can ship in there and run in some stakes. With Gulfstream and Tampa not too far away, we have enough options to continue training as usual. We will continue to monitor the situation as everyone else.”
Trainers are not the only ones in New York affected by the suspension of racing. Jockeys are also trying to acclimate by finding new ways to stay fit and bide their time.
“I’ve been painting the house and basically being a handy man,” said Jose Lezcano, who won the spring title at Belmont last year and finished second in the Aqueduct standings this winter. “I’ve been going to the track and breezing some horses to stay fit and will continue to do so whenever I can. It’s just a wait-and-see process. I talked to my agent about going to Oaklawn Apr. 11, but with the quarantine rules, I’m not sure that is possible.”
Aqueduct winter meet victor Manny Franco, who captured his third straight title for that meet, rode at Gulfstream Saturday, capturing the GI Curlin Florida Derby aboard Tiz the Law (Constitution), but has returned to New York and will remain here as he waits for racing to return.
“I’m back home in New York and I won’t be riding until they run back here in New York,” said Franco, who has a young daughter at home.
Reylu Gutierrez had intended to temporarily move his tack to Gulfstream while Aqueduct was shut down, but was unable to do so.
“I couldn’t make the deadline to ride in Florida,” Gutierrez said. “They gave us a short notice and it was a little confusing, but I know they are just trying to enforce health priorities. I had to stay put, so I’m here in New York working horses, staying fit and just waiting it out.”
“Waiting it out” seems to be the key phrase for all of us during this pandemic. With New York being one of the states hit the hardest by COVID-19, Gullo summed up the feeling at Belmont–and across the country–pretty well, when he said, “This is just a scary time for everybody, especially in New York. It is a disaster here right now. It is very tough.”