By Joe Bianca
The ever-growing threat to American life that is coronavirus COVID-19 has rapidly chipped away at horse racing's business after shutting down the affairs of all major sports. Only a handful of tracks are choosing to stay open without spectators as of this writing, and news of the four-month postponement of the GI Kentucky Derby drove home once and for all that the sport would not be unaffected by this crisis.
But deeper into the heart of Kentucky than the Twin Spires, are stallion and breeding farms. As much as racetracks, they are the backbone of the Thoroughbred industry, and as of now, they will press on with the business of the game during this mostly dark period with limited interruption.
“None of this is easy, because it's so fluid,” said Mike Cline, Farm Manager for Lane's End Farm. “There are so many things to take in seemingly every hour with more closings, but we're trying to take the sensible approach to things.”
That includes similar steps to what most businesses in America are doing right now as they try not to interrupt operations: allowing work to be done remotely, providing sick or vacation days, stepping up sanitary measures. But farms have their own sets of challenges, with both an office environment as well as a massive agricultural component to manage.
“From an office standpoint, we've offered some people to work remotely if their particular job allows for that to be the case, and everybody's doing the simple things, washing their hands, trying to stay out of clusters like in the lunchroom, keeping their work area wiped off and clean,” said Cline. “On the farm, we've been forced to gear back on all the tours and visitation things we have. We've slowed all that down to where it's just the people that work here, no guests.”
“No stallion shows,” Sean Tugel, Director of Bloodstock at WinStar Farm, added. “Anything we can do to cut foot traffic down, and limit who can come in and out.”
“In our office we've got everybody who's able to work from home is working from home, in-house staff are able to spread out and keep away from each other and we stepped up our cleaning services and procedures,” said Ned Toffey, General Manager at Spendthift Farm. “The care of the horses is essential, and the nice thing is so much of that takes place outside, which I think is a much safer environment.”
The core of the stallion industry occurs, of course, in the breeding shed, already an area where sanitation is emphasized, according to Tugel.
“Breeding sheds are a place where sanitation and cleanliness has always been a high priority,” he said. “If there's a place where hand sanitizers and wipes and stuff like that are already being used, that's one.”
Beyond their usual disinfecting procedures, farms are taking precautions that include making sure only horses can come in from outside the property, that written paperwork is replaced with online forms and that the shed work is isolated from the rest of the farm.
“We're not actually letting anyone come into the breeding shed,” Cline said. “If you bring a mare, you have to hand her to us at the door, and we hand her back to you at the door on the way out. No more paperwork and passing that all around, we ask everyone to email their paperwork the day before. Our guys that work the shed don't go onto the main farm, people that work the office don't go to the shed. That way if we were unlucky enough to have someone test positive or someone with symptoms, there wouldn't be cross contamination. We're really trying to pay attention to that. I'm lucky because I've got a shed full of guys who have been there years and years and years, and they understand how important it is what they're doing.”
“We have 40-50 vans coming in and out of our shed every day,” Cline continued. “We're stopping them, unloading the mare, bringing her to the door, and they remain outside in the parking lot or their truck outside the shed.”
Spendthrift has instituted similar policies. “We're basically eliminating as much human contact as possible, particularly with regard to our breeding shed,” Toffey said. “When folks bring their mares in, paperwork is now being done digitally and we've asked people to limit one person accompanying the mare to the shed when they come in so that outsiders are limited coming in and there's minimal contact between them and our staff.”
Cline noted that Lane's End and other farms are taking these precautions because the alternative, stopping business in the middle of the breeding season, would be disastrous.
“You hope it wouldn't ever come to having to quarantine at the shed or stop traffic in and out of the farm,” he said. “That's something that we hope by doing these common sense things we can avoid. It's just hard to know the exact right thing to do, but I'm sure everybody's being very thoughtful about all that stuff. It's a strange time.”
That much is undeniable. While the coronavirus had been in the news for several weeks, it wasn't until last Wednesday, when it started to impede the reliable backdrop of sports in our society and culture, that it truly became an apparent threat to American life. First, the NCAA decided to conduct its basketball tournaments without fans, then the NBA suspended its season after one of its players tested positive. Steadily, the news trickled in as the NHL followed suit, major golf tournaments, March Madness and the baseball season were postponed.
“It's eerie not having any kind of sporting events to watch,” Cline said. “No Masters, no NCAA Tournament, spring baseball, take your pick.”
Tuesday, the postponement of the Derby was obviously on the minds of the racing public, and it brought to a crashing halt any notion that the sport could avoid the major interruptions of this crisis.
“If anyone was unsure about the seriousness of this situation, that ought to illustrate it for them,” Toffey said. “The first Saturday in May is a pretty sacred date in this business and this is the first time in my lifetime it won't be run then. Is it what we'd all like to see? Obviously not, but I would commend Churchill Downs on saying that they don't want to give up a great tradition, but they also recognize they've got to make some changes because we've got a very serious issue going on worldwide.”
“I'm sure there was a lot of thought put into that, I'm sure somebody out there knows why they picked Sept. 5,” Cline said. “It's going to be interesting to see what they do with the [Derby qualifying] points races, they'll probably have to add some more.”
“Trainers are telling me the hardest part of it is that they're always training up to a race,” Tugel said. “So it's hard not knowing when they're going to run again. By moving the race, it's not the Derby as we know it, but it's still going to be a hell of a horse race at the end of the day. It's probably going to be a better race because the 3-year-olds are going to be more mature and better horses come then.”
Ultimately, the unfolding story of the coronavirus in America is going to be bigger than any one industry or business, and it will likely impact basically every facet of our society in some way. The toll it takes on all of us will be large, mentally if nothing else, and the uncertainty of when things will return to normal weighs on everyone. Cline is already feeling the effects personally, being unable to visit his mother in her nursing home right now, and he made a plea to the responsibility we all have to those most vulnerable in our communities during these dark hours.
“I think people have to understand that it's no time to be reckless right now,” he said. “The stuff people are telling you to do, you should do. Someone said the other day, 'Pretend like you have the virus and act accordingly.' Pray for all the older people and everyone that's affected. Everyone else has a responsibility to those people to act prudently.”