By Joe Bianca
As the racing world mostly returned to order last week with the reopening of Santa Anita and Churchill and dates for two-thirds of the rescheduled Triple Crown being locked in, eyes turned to the New York Racing Association. Located in the epicenter of the world's coronavirus pandemic, NYRA hasn't run a race card since Mar. 15 at Aqueduct, and has remained in limbo like much of the state as the virus peaked, then slowly–painfully slowly–retreated.
But with Governor Andrew Cuomo's proclamation that racing could resume in New York beginning June 1, the door was opened for the flood of announcements that came from NYRA this week: Belmont Park will reopen for racing June 3, with a condensed and reduced stakes schedule headlined by the nine-furlong GI Belmont S. June 20. Wednesday morning, NYRA's vice president of racing operations, Martin Panza, joined the TDN Writers' Room presented by Keeneland for a 30-plus-minute interview to answer all the questions of the day on racing in the Empire State. Calling in via Zoom as the Green Group Guest of the Week, Panza talked about, among other things, the significance of returning the sport to COVID-battered New York City, whether or not a Saratoga meet is still in the cards, and what the last two months have been like as NYRA adapted to meet the ever-shifting demands of a pandemic.
Asked about why the Belmont was slated for June 20, a date that is months before the next Triple Crown race, Panza said, “Obviously, when Churchill let us know that they were moving the Derby to Sept. 5, it caught us off guard, and it was tricky because you're working with NBC. Are there TV windows available? We started to make phone calls and talk to the tracks that have major 3-year-old races and tried to start to place them on a calendar in front of us. With [the Preakness] going Oct. 3, we didn't really want to run the Belmont Stakes up against the Breeders' Cup and maybe against football. Our board, our racing committee looked and said, 'Listen, there's really nothing in June. Why don't we try to run it in June? We're probably going to be spectator-free for the rest of the year, let's try to help that [3-year-old] category by racing in June.' You've got the Arkansas Derby that was run May 2. You've got the Matt Winn coming up this weekend. You've got the Indiana Derby July 8. The Haskell is July 18. I believe that Keeneland is mulling running the Blue Grass July 11. So it made sense, June 20, June 27. We ended up on June 20 with NBC. There is a three-hour window there.”
As for why the race was cut back from 1 1/2 miles to nine furlongs, Panza emphasized that attempt at cooperation with the rest of the 3-year-old calendar, saying, “It didn't make a lot of sense with horses having not run for several months to run the Belmont this year at 1 1/2 miles. I'm a big believer in long-distance racing. We've always tried to offer longer races in New York, so I get the tradition of the Belmont. For this year though with the pandemic, everything has changed.
“We're just trying to set up a pattern of races for the 3-year-olds that will get them to the Breeders' Cup in an orderly fashion where a guy can run a horse every month or every five weeks. We have been talking with Churchill and Keeneland and Monmouth Park and California trying to coordinate that. It doesn't always happen exactly the way we want it, but we're getting pretty close.”
The conversation soon pivoted to Saratoga, scheduled to open in less than two months without fans. Panza was asked about why NYRA remains committed to racing at Saratoga despite the lack of spectators, as opposed to staying south at Belmont for this summer, and said there is a sense of obligation to the town of Saratoga Springs. He also stressed the safety protocols that will need to be in place if the Belmont backstretch is relocated upstate.
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“Saratoga Race Course is a big part of that community, and whether there's fans there or if it's just the racing people or hopefully owners as well, we're going to do everything we can to try and help that town,” he said. “We're working on the protocols. We've been working with the gaming commission, so we're close to getting the Oklahoma training track open, and we've been working with the health department up there to make sure they're comfortable, that everyone that comes up there will be tested for the virus and that either you've got a negative test or you've got an antibody test before you arrive up there.
“We want to keep our horsemen healthy, but we also want to make the town feel comfortable that we're being responsible. That town needs us. The restaurants, the hotels, whether it's just the horsemen and some owners, or whether we're allowed to have some fans, a lot of businesses in that town rely on that race meet to make it through the year.”
Panza also discussed potentially moving the GI Travers S., the Saratoga meet centerpiece traditionally run at the end of August, so as not to conflict with the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby. He said that a move of the Midsummer Derby is likely, but expressed frustration about ongoing discussions with Churchill Downs that need to be resolved before NYRA can put together a Saratoga calendar.
“We're talking with Churchill Downs and we've been waiting for their schedule of what they're trying to do,” he said. “I think they've been working with Kentucky Downs and we're waiting for them to get schedules to us. There's a few races that would probably cause Saratoga a problem. So we're open to perhaps moving the Travers or the Alabama, but we need them to work with us. This can't just be a one-way street. We've been talking for the last three or four weeks and hopefully in the next week or so we can get that ironed out and put a schedule together for the entire Saratoga meet.
“We're also trying to buy a little bit of time to see if our casino gets up and running at any time. We're going to do everything we can to try and keep a Grade I each week of the race meet, but there's different scenarios out there right now. So I'm not going to say the Travers and Alabama are moving yet. We think they will, but we need Churchill to work with us on some other issues.”
Nowhere in America has the coronavirus shaken up normal life more than in New York City, where there have been hundreds of thousands of positive cases leading to an absolutely staggering death toll. Panza reflected on the challenges that have been presented to NYRA that required efforts far beyond the normal job duties of racing officials, particularly when Belmont was handed an outbreak of its own on the backstretch.
“I think for probably the last six weeks, I haven't been a racing executive,” he said. “I've now learned about county health departments, how to test for a virus, how to do antibody tests, where I can find registered nurses to help us, how to set up isolation cottages, how to get people fed that are in isolation. Chaplain Umberto [Chavez] has done a tremendous job, the Backstretch Employees Service Team, [NYTHA president] Joe Appelbaum. We've all really sort of come together as a team just to try and help our backstretch employees get through this situation and NYRA employees get through it and try to stay healthy. And when they're not healthy, try to get them the help they need. A lot of them do not have health insurance and it's trying to help them. If they've been laid off, trying to help them get onto unemployment. If they can't get unemployment, it's making sure they have a house over their head, making sure that if they need to see a doctor, they can.
“It's been challenging at times and it's been frustrating, especially in New York. We're the Wuhan of the [American outbreak of the] virus. And for a while there, testing wasn't available, and it was very hard to get to a doctor. Just trying to find safety masks, the first three weeks or month. So you're calling all over the place, trying to find people that we could buy 25,000 masks from. So the job changed from a racing executive to a sort of healthcare official and we shifted gears into, who can we reach out to? Where can we get help? And that's not going to go away anytime soon.”
Elsewhere on the podcast, in the West Point News of the Week segment, the writers recapped the first major cross-country weekend of racing in months, which included the triumphant return of champion Monomoy Girl (Tapizar), and touched on some tracks who are still struggling, including Parx and Woodbine.