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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

MAY RETURN IN MARYLAND?

By Maryland Jockey Club Release — Tim Keefe: “If somebody really asked me, ‘When do you think things are going to be up and running?’ I’m going to say the middle of May.”

Even without a definitive schedule or target, Grade 2 winner Still Having Fun is living up to his name while his connections await a return to live racing they are hopeful will be in the coming weeks.

Gary Barber, Wachtel Stable and Terp Racing’s Still Having Fun was back on the work tab for only the fourth time this year April 17 at Laurel Park, going a half-mile in 48 seconds that ranked first among 66 horses at the distance.

It was the first work in more than a month and just the second since Still Having Fun’s third-place finish behind Firenze Fire in Laurel’s General George (G3) Feb. 15 for trainer Tim Keefe. Maryland has not conducted live racing since March 15 out of health concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I hadn’t done anything with him for a while and then when all this happened we contemplated just turning him out for a while, but he had just come back from a layoff so we decided to just keep him going hoping that it wouldn’t last too long,” Keefe said. “I hadn’t worked him or done anything with him as far as speed work goes.

“It was a nice day and he’s been feeling great. [Jockey] Sheldon [Russell] was out and had an extra minute, so I decided just to let him stretch his legs a little bit. That was the thinking there,” he added. “He’s doing great, he’s just doing super, and I’ve got no issues with him. He did it nice and easy. Good horses seem to run fast and work fast. He did it nice, but he always works pretty well.”

Still Having Fun was beaten a neck for second in the General George, his 10th top three finish in 19 career races and third graded-stakes placing including a win in the Woody Stephens (G2) and third in the Malibu (G1) in 2018. A $12,000 yearling purchase out of Fasig-Tipton‘s Midlantic fall 2016 sale at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, the 5-year-old gelding has earned $568,367 in purses.

“We were looking forward to a great campaign, but it is what it is. He’s doing super,” Keefe said. “To be honest with you, I think everything has changed. I don’t have any goals other than just getting him out there running. I really don’t have anything I’m targeting, I don’t have anything in mind.

“One of the things I’m thinking about is, when the condition book comes out, maybe there will be one of those open allowance races they write here,” he added. “He’s Maryland-bred and everything; it certainly would be a good spot for him.”

Keefe, an accomplished triathlete as well as a multiple stakes-winning Thoroughbred trainer, also serves as president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. As such, he has been part of the ongoing conversations with state government, including Gov. Larry Hogan, Secretary of Labor Tiffany Robinson and Secretary of Commerce Kelly Schulz about the return of live racing.

“I guess in my mind, and it’s nothing that I know or don’t know, it’s just kind of what I’m seeing on the news and reading about and seeing what’s going on in our state and our country and the world,” Keefe said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be running back here May 1st. I’m thinking to myself it’s going to be the middle of May, but the reality is it could be the first part of June, too.

“If somebody really asked me, ‘When do you think things are going to be up and running?’ I’m going to say the middle of May. We’ve put all the social distancing protocols in place and we were effectively racing here even before Gov. Hogan mandated all that stuff,” he added. “We were able to show as an industry that we can make those protocols work and still effectively race, and I think that was important.”

Laurel Park successfully hosted spectator-free live programs March 13-15, highlighted by an 11-race card featuring four $100,000 stakes March 14, including the Private Terms for 3-year-olds won by Lebda and Beyond the Wire for 3-year-old fillies won by stablemate Princess Cadey.

“One of the questions I’ve had from some of the horsemen is, ‘Have you guys talked to the governor’s office?’” Keefe said. “We’ve been in contact with the governor’s office. Secretary Robinson talked with me the other day, just to let us know she knows our industry, she’s working with us, she knows what we’re doing here, she’s going to do everything she can along with Secretary Schultz to try to help move things along.

“So, the communication’s open. They know that we’re really anxious to open and they know what we’ve done as far as social distancing protocols and how we have that all in place.

“One of the things we did on another phone call the other day was also, ‘Hey let’s not wait until we get the green light. Let’s get everything ready.

“How are we going to open? If they say ‘Open on the first of May,’ how are we going to hit the ground running? What’s the condition book going to look like? What is everything we can have in place to get rolling? These are the things we’re doing.”

Keefe also serves as president of the Maryland Horsemen’s Assistance Fund, vice president of Maryland Million Ltd. and chairman of the MTHA’s Health and Welfare Committee. He said once racing begins, there is money to cover purses until the casinos reopen and replenish the horsemen’s account.

In the meantime, both Laurel and Pimlico Race Course have continued strict protocols for the health and safety of horsemen and their staff for the daily care and training of nearly 1,100 horses between the two tracks.

“I think we will be one of the earlier sporting events or industries that will be able to open. We are a little bit unique,” Keefe said.

“We are a little bit different than a lot of the others where they rely mainly on the crowds and the inside people. We’ve got such a big area and people are able to spread out, so I’m hopeful for those reasons that we’ll be back sooner rather than later.

“Certainly, with the way the economy is going and everything as a result of all this, that’s something that Gov. Hogan is thinking about – getting things going. He doesn’t want to have racing shut down, but he has to look out for the health and best interests first,” he added.

“Of course then, we’ll be OK for a while but be conscious that we do rely on the revenues from the casinos. We’re in a good position now where we’re underpaid about $3.5 million and we’ll survive. We’ll be able to get up and running prior to the casinos being open, but we have to be careful and cognizant of the fact that they will have to soon follow, hopefully, so we don’t have to make any drastic cuts in purses or that sort of thing.

“It’s a hard balancing act in figuring out all the right things. Of course, we don’t want to open too soon to risk any health issues.”

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