By Bill Finley
In any other year, the spring steeplechasing season would have concluded last week with the races at Fair Hill, Maryland, the latest hunt meet to draw a large and energetic crowd, there for the party as much as the races. Instead, the jump racing community is trying to figure out how it can salvage what has so far been a lost year.
No slice of Thoroughbred racing has been hurt more by the coronavirus than steeplechase racing. With 14 of the 16 spring meets having been cancelled due to the pandemic, there has yet to be a single jump race contested in the U.S. this year. And the path back is not clear. The majority of the funding for the hunt meets comes from admission and parking. Most have no betting and the ones that do on the spring schedule limit wagering to on-track fans.
“We are the antithesis of what's going on in the rest of racing,” said National Steeplechase Association (NSA) Director of Racing Bill Gallo, Jr. “We depend on large crowds as the only revenue source we have other then sponsorships. So, it's been a challenging spring for us.”
Gallo is hoping that something from the spring season can be salvaged. The NSA has rescheduled the Middleburg (Va) Spring Meet for June 13 and the Virginia Gold Cup for June 27 and has requested that the state give it permission to run spectator-free. The Virginia Gold Cup normally draws a crowd of more than 50,000 and has been in operation since 1922.
“Even though two meets doesn't sound like much, it will be a huge step if we can do this,” Gallo said. “The horsemen are desperate to run the two Virginia meets.”
If able to run, the two meets will give away a combined $375,000, which, Gallo says, will represent a reduction of about 30 to 40%. Nonetheless, trainers are eager to start racing again.
“No doubt, this has been debilitating,” said trainer Kathy Neilson. “There have been no opportunities. We've all been training, schooling, trying to get ready for any opportunities we might have. It's going to be really tough going for a while.
The steeplechase season is divided into three parts, the spring hunt meet season, summer races at flat tracks like Saratoga and the fall hunt meet season. The spring races start in South Carolina and include meets in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Delaware and Pennsylvania. The crowds are large and the admission and tailgate parking spots are not cheap. General admission at the Virginia Gold Cup is $25 for an individual, $85 for a car and hospitality tents sell for as much as $22,500. The money is used to pay for purses and donations to local charities.
Earlier this month, NSA President Al Griffin, Jr. reached out to Virginia Secretary of Agriculture Bettina Ring and sought permission to run the two meets with a limited amount of spectators. When told that wasn't feasible, the NSA amended its request to holding spectator-free racing. The organization is awaiting an answer from the state.
Spectator-free racing will mean virtually no revenue and a guarantee that the hunt meets will lose money, but Gallo said it was important for the sport to start up again.
“Our president, Al Griffin, is committed to our horsemen that have been training these horses since January for a 16-meet schedule that didn't happen,” Gallo said. “In his mind, we owe the owners, the trainers, the grooms, everybody who has been working with the horses. There won't be any fans and therefore no revenue. It's going to cost Middleburg some money and it's going to cost the Virginia Gold Cup some money.”
The summer season may include as many as 12 races at Colonial Downs and nine at Saratoga. There doesn't appear to be any reason why those races won't take place.
The bigger question is what will happen to the fall races? Starting in Lexington at the High Hope Steeplechase meet, there are 12 hunt meetings scheduled for the fall. That includes the meet at Far Hills, New Jersey, which attracts more than 40,000 people. Tickets to the meet are available at the race course's web site, but it is not known yet if they will be allowed to have fans for the Oct. 17 races.
“Unfortunately, I think we are going to have to write this year off,” said trainer William Dowling. “Even when we get back to racing I think we will be doing it behind closed doors the rest of the season. The whole world is going to be different for a while. I can't see there being any big outdoor events.”
Gallo is holding out hope that at least some of the fall meets will be run before fans. If not, coming up with purse money is going to be a problem.
“I'm not quite sure what they will look like,” Gallo said of the fall meets. “I don't think there will be any cancellations, but it will be challenging. We are trying to race with crowds, not without crowds. We don't have the luxury of pari-mutuel gambling or having our races on the ADWs. We are trying to figure it all out.”