By Bill Finley
During his daily press briefing, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Saturday that all racetracks in the state can resume racing June 1.
Since June 1 is a Monday, normally a dark day, it is likely that Belmont will not open until a few days afterward. NYRA has been shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic since Aqueduct last ran Mar. 15.
Cuomo's announcement also paves the way for Finger Lakes and the state's harness tracks to reopen.
“NYRA and the New York racing community are thankful for Governor Cuomo's steady leadership throughout this public health crisis and we applaud his decision to authorize the resumption of horse racing, without fans, beginning on June 1,” NYRA President and CEO Dave O'Rourke said in a statement. “This is a reasoned and responsible decision by Governor Cuomo that will enable horse racing to resume in a way that prioritizes health and safety while recognizing that NYRA is the cornerstone of an industry responsible for 19,000 jobs and $3 billion in annual economic impact.
“We look forward to the resumption of live racing at Belmont Park with all appropriate health and safety protocols in place to support the hundreds of small businesses, family-owned farms and thousands of hourly workers who form the backbone of Thoroughbred racing in New York.”
It still remains to be seen what the racing will look like once NYRA restarts operations. Several stakes races were scheduled during the period while NYRA was shut down and the June 6 card was to include the GI Belmont S. plus several other major stakes like the GI Metropolitan H. and the GI Manhattan S.
“We are hoping to have a condition book and stakes schedule out on Tuesday,” said NYRA Senior Vice President of Racing Martin Panza. “It's just that there are a lot of moving parts at the moment. We've gotten preliminary things laid out but have to check in with Fox and NBC. Now that we have a starting date, we have to plug some of the pieces in. We have to get some gaming commission approvals and racing committee approvals. We hope to get all that wrapped up by Tuesday.”
Because the casino at Aqueduct has also been closed since March, the revenue available for purses is down and the condition book expected to be released Tuesday could show a cut in purses.
Panza said no decision has been reached yet so far as when to run the Belmont. In an interview with the Daily Racing Form on Friday, O'Rourke hinted that the Belmont could be run in June and at a distance shorter than a mile-and-a-half.
The news that Belmont was just weeks away from reopening was well received by horsemen.
“This was great to see and it was great that people in Albany took the time to listen to our message and understand the sport and how we have been operating for the last eight weeks,” said New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association President Joe Appelbaum. “They were comfortable with what we told him. There has been a group effort between our team and the NYRA team to get this done. What we have done over the last eight weeks on the safety protocols and the communication necessary and working with people in Albany, it was unprecedented in the modern relationship between tracks and horsemen.”
Cuomo said the time had come for activities that can take place without large crowds to be allowed to open.
“We have a smart-phased reopening plan that has been reviewed by great experts in the field, and we feel very good about that,” Cuomo said. “We're getting a little more nuanced in our analysis, looking for economic activities that you can start without crowds and without gatherings. Remember the problem here are crowds and gatherings.
“What economic activity is willing to reopen without a crowd?” he continued. “They're talking about this in terms of sports. You can have baseball without a crowd, but it can still be televised. Great. You can have economic activity without a crowd. That's great. We can do that in this state with horse racing tracks and we're going to do that. There will be guidelines for the actual participants but no crowds, no fans, but for the industry itself, for the televised viewers, that can still work.”
Since the mid-March shutdown, NYRA executives and horsemen worked diligently in order to formulate a plan for reopening. That included submitting a 19-page document to the state that covered the many safety protocols NYRA was prepared to put into place in order to resume racing.
“We're not going to take our eye off the ball on safety issues,” Appelbaum said. “That's really important. We are still operating downstate and the conditions are massively better than they were a month ago, but it's still something we need to be on top of every day.”
The Belmont meet will be a short one as Saratoga is scheduled to open July 16. In an earlier press briefing, Cuomo shot down the possibility of fans being allowed to attend the races at Saratoga, but NYRA's intention is to shift upstate and run its scheduled dates at Saratoga.