On a Day of Turmoil for Sport, NYRA, Oaklawn, Fair Grounds, Gulfstream Announce Show Will Go On

Racing at Aqueduct in front of an empty grandstand | Chelsea Durand


On a day when racetracks around the world, including Keeneland, announced they would be shutting their doors due to the COVID-19 outbreak, NYRA, Oaklawn, Gulfstream and the Fair Grounds announced their intentions to continue racing.

The decision by NYRA may have been the most surprising among the three as it came just hours after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a ban of gatherings of 50 people or more and that restaurants, bars, movie theaters and casinos must shut down.

Aqueduct's next scheduled day of live racing is Friday. As was the case last weekend, fans will not be allowed inside the building.

“The health and safety of employees, fans, horsemen and the backstretch community is paramount,” NYRA CEO & President Dave O'Rourke said in a statement. “Now that we have experienced racing under these conditions for three days, we remain confident in our ability to safely conduct racing operations behind closed doors and with only the staff that are required under the rules of racing in New York. Of course, we will constantly evaluate this situation over the coming days in advance of Friday and make further adjustments as necessary.”

Trainer Gary Gullo, a veteran New York horseman, praised NYRA for keeping the track open.

“I am very happy about this,” he said. “What's going on is hurting everybody. I was very concerned that they would shut down and if they did I'm looking at putting my horses on a farm and letting my help go. Those are the things that hurt the overall economy. I'm happy for my help. Everyone is being careful. We're washing our hands and trying to keep a good distance from one another.”

Earlier in the day, the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut announced they had established a set of rules covering all three states regarding the coronavirus. Cuomo announced that the ban would cover movie theaters, restaurants and bars and nontribal casinos, including the Resorts World casino at Aqueduct. There was widespread speculation that the ban would include horse racing, but NYRA obviously interpreted it otherwise.

Jeff Gural, the owner of the Meadowlands in New Jersey, said that he had been ordered by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy not to race.

“I don't know when we will be allowed to race again,” Gural said. “The shutdown is indefinite. Things are at a disaster level.”

NYRA said in its statement that it had consulted with the New York State Gaming Commission and that racing would fall under the guidelines set by Cuomo that prohibited gatherings of 50 people or more.

NYRA will have strict limitations on who can attend the races, allowing only essential racetrack staff, a category that includes stewards, trainers, assistant trainers and grooms. Owners will not be permitted to attend.

When asked for a comment on the continuation of racing, New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association President Joe Applebaum chose to focus on the hardships being faced by the group's members.

“The horsemen are dealing with an incredibly difficult situation and are trying to keep our horses and our people as safe as possible,” he said.

In a state that also has a number of harness racetracks, there was anything but a uniform response to COVID-19. Finger Lakes has not yet begun its 2020 racing season, but has announced that the facility will be closed indefinitely. As far as the harness tracks go, Saratoga Raceway has announced that racing will continue Wednesday. Monticello Raceway has announced it will be closed through Mar. 30. Buffalo Raceway will be dark until May 2. At Yonkers Raceway, where a horsemen's group representative died last week due to the coronavirus, racing has been shut down indefinitely.

NYRA said in its statement that it will continue to monitor the situation and assess developments and that it will continue to follow best practices established by the New York State Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The Fair Grounds, which is scheduled to host the GII Louisiana Derby Saturday, posted on its website that races will continue to be held spectator-free and that the on-track OTB and the slots parlor had been closed. Oaklawn announced that no fans will be allowed to attend the races through Mar. 30 but that the races will continue. The on-track casino will be closed through the 30th.

“As a good community citizen, we felt this was the right thing to do for public health,” Oaklawn President Louis Cella said in a statement. “As for the nearly 1,000 team members we have on staff during this live racing season, including all year round and seasonal team members, we will continue to pay their salary and benefits during this two-week period.

“As for racing, it has always been the life blood of Oaklawn and we are happy to offer the horsemen an avenue for racing their horses in these challenging times. While no fans are permitted to experience racing during this time, fans can still to watch and wager on Oaklawn Anywhere if they Arkansas residents or any other ADW platform. We will continue to monitor everything on a day to day basis. We appreciate the patience of our guests, team members and horsemen.”

Gulfstream released a statement late Monday saying that the casino would be closed but that racing would continue. Fans will not be allowed to attend the races and all areas of the clubhouse, including the walking ring and the apron, will be closed off.

The Stronach Group has yet to announce whether or not racing will continue at Santa Anita. Laurel, as well as all casinos and tracks in the state of Maryland, has been ordered to shut down by the state's governor.

Monday's racing lineup served as a reminder that nothing is the same as it was before COVID-19 swept into the U.S. The only thoroughbred track that raced was Will Rogers Downs in Claremore, Oklahoma. Monday was the opening day of its spring meet. Will Rogers did not ban spectators. On a normal Monday, the racing schedule would have included Parx, Mahoning Valley and Turf Paradise. All were closed due to the virus.

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