By Bill Finley
Turn the calendar back to February and Joe Taylor could not have been doing better. He had been the leading trainer at Parx Racing in 2019 and was again on top of the standings in 2020. Racing for lucrative, slots-infused purses, he won 107 races last year at Parx for earnings of $3,160,143. Now, he's just trying to stay in business.
“My hope is that I can get myself into a situation where I'm just treading water, not making or losing money and can pay my bills,” he said. “If this thing goes on another two months, I have no idea what the answer will be. It's a scary situation.”
Taylor last started a horse at Parx Mar. 10. That was the last day the track held racing, shutting down afterwards because of the coronavirus threat. Parx was among the first tracks to close down and, three weeks later and with the resumption of racing nowhere in sight, trainers are trying to figure out how to ride out the storm.
A typical day rate at Parx is $75, which, trainers say, is just enough to cover the expenses of caring for and training a horse. Their money is made from the share of the purse they receive when a horse races. With that revenue stream no longer available, trainers have already taken steps to keep their businesses going. Taylor said his help has agreed to take a 50% cut in pay.
“I have a pretty large staff,” he said. “We all got together and everyone agreed to have their pay cut in half so they can keep working. They didn't want to lose their jobs. They said, 'We love working for you, we love working here, we'll keep working and take half the pay.'”
Scott Lake said he may cut what he pays his employees next month. Phil Aristone said he had to lay off three employees. Ron Dandy hasn't cut back yet on his staff, but worries that he will eventually have to do so.
“It's terrible,” Dandy said. “There are people back here that are living week to week. They only make money when the horses are running and right now we can't do anything here.”
It's also been a hard time for the owners. They are being asked to pay in the neighborhood of $2,600 a month per horse to keep them in training at Parx. That's a hefty price in the best of times and some are trying to cut their losses. The easiest way to do so is to send a horse to a farm, where the costs are less than what they are on the racetrack.
“If a guy says he wants to turn his horses out and send them to the farm, I can't argue with him,” Lake said.
While sending a horse to the farm may solve one problem it creates others, as you risk putting them in a position, should racing resume, where they are not fit enough to run.
“A lot of these guys are just trying to keep their help going and keep the horses fit enough that if we do start back up they are ready to run,” Aristone said. “If you start sending horses to the farm, and they announce they're going to run again, it will take another month to get them ready to where they can race.”
Taylor said he has discouraged his owners from sending horses to the farm because a horse that is in training can have a hard time making the adjustment that comes with being turned out.
“One of my owners wanted to send all his horses to the farm, but I thought that would be detrimental,” he said. “You can't just send a fit horse to the farm. They'll run through fences.”
There's also the matter that trainers who lose horses to farms don't need as much help. That makes it harder to justify keeping your employees or not cutting their pay.
All of these are problems that have arisen in just three weeks of no racing. The situation will only grow worse with each day that goes by with Parx dark. Even a top trainer like Taylor said he was worried about his future. The smaller outfits may not be able to survive.
“Personally, this could cripple us,” said Dandy, who has 12 horses. “My owners aren't big owners. They are small owners who do it because they love the game. If this only goes another month or so, they won't have a problem. When you get into another month or two after that, I don't know what they're going to do. They'll have to get rid of their horses and, at that point, where do you go to get rid of them? For a lot of us, where do you go to get money? You still have to pay your help, you still have to pay for your grain, you still have to pay the workmen's comp and all of the other bills. It's going to be very difficult.”
“If this thing goes for another six or seven weeks, it will be drastic,” Taylor said. “I hope I'll be in a situation where I can pay my bills. I don't know what the answer is going to be. I have 40 horses over there. You go in every day worried about the virus, worried about your staff, worried about your horses.”
The hope is that Parx can race again within a short period of time. The reality is that it could be months before racing resumes there. No one knows.
“What will it be like three, four months from now? I don't know,” Aristone said. “Nobody really knows. That's a question 99% of the people in U.S. would like answered. It will depend on how much longer owners can afford to keep paying us and how much longer the track will let us train. All you can do is hope for best.”