Despite a prior executive order that closed Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course and Rosecroft Raceway, horse racing will go on as planned this weekend, with one industry representative telling Baltimore Fishbowl that running races without crowds is in compliance with the rule.
Alan Foreman, a local attorney and the chairman and CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said conducting races is an extension of training activities that were permitted by the state under the order.
“We are, and have been, in full compliance with the Governor’s Executive Orders and every possible precaution and safeguard is being taken to ensure the health, safety and welfare of our horses and the very limited number of people necessary to operate racing without the public in attendance,” Foreman said.
On Sunday, Gov. Larry Hogan issued the order closing tracks, casinos and off-track betting facilities, effective on midnight of Monday, March 16, to stop the spread of coronavirus. Last weekend, Laurel Park ran on Friday, Saturday and Sunday without any fans in attendance, joining tracks in California, Florida, Kentucky, New York and Arkansas.
Almost all the professional sports leagues have either postponed their seasons or cancelled games and tournaments. Foreman said trainers, backstretch workers who care for the horses, jockeys and other track attendants all need to work to feed their families.
And unlike human athletes, horses cannot simply wait around for the season to start back up.
“Thoroughbred horses must have the ability to exercise and run, if at all possible,” Foreman said. “They cannot just stand in stalls.”
Hogan’s order did allow for backstretch workers, who often live on site or nearby, to continue to care for the horses in their stalls and exercise them.
Only essential staff will be at Laurel Park to run the races and tend to the horses, Foreman said. And the track is only allowing thoroughbreds who are stabled at Laurel or Pimlico, where racing is regulated by the Maryland Racing Commission, to be in the fields of runners.
Of course, the decision by major sports leagues to call-off games was not just in response to prohibitions against large crowds during the pandemic. The leagues are also protecting their star athletes.
During a particularly hectic scene on March 11, the NBA postponed a game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, and later suspended the entire season, after it was discovered right before tip-off that two Jazz players, center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell, had tested positive for COVID-19.
The players were quarantined in the locker rooms at Chesapeake Bay Arena in Oklahoma City to get tested for the virus.
Naturally, most sports do not allow for the six feet of separation recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to stop the spread of the virus.
That’s true in racing, such as when the jockeys and horses are right next to each other after being loaded in the starting gate, or prior to the race when a valet helps saddle the horse. And the riders themselves are in close quarters between races when they are in the jockey’s room to change silks.
Foreman said the Maryland Jockey Club is bringing in a trailer to minimize close contact for the jockeys and valets, and taking other measures to ensure safety.
“All riders’ health will be monitored as required under our special protocols and their temperatures will be taken each day,” he said. “They are not permitted on the grounds if they feel sick, are exhibiting symptoms or have been advised that they have been exposed.”
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Like all other businesses and industries, the Maryland Jockey Club is adapting to the pandemic as the crisis evolves, Foreman said, and that could eventually mean cancelling races.
“This is an evolving situation, and if circumstances change, or it is not feasible for us to operate even in compliance with the protocols, we will not operate,” he said.