Expectations are growing that racing in traditional spring and summer venues might be able to resume in the next month or two.
The Stronach Group has been pleading with California regulators for permission to reopen Santa Anita and Golden Gate, using the experiences in Florida and Arkansas to argue that racing can be successfully staged without adverse health consequences.
NYRA has targeted May 22 for the reopening of Belmont. Churchill Downs is pushing hard to be allowed to get back into action as soon as mid-May. New Jersey still has a July 2 opening of Monmouth planned.
It can’t be stressed strongly enough that these are merely the hopes of race track operators. NY governor Andrew Cuomo, no friend of racing, is still keeping a tight rein on his state and doesn’t appear on the verge of a widescale reopening.
New Jersey’s coronavirus situation might be more dire than New York. In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear has the same relationship with Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, who is advocating strongly for the resumption of racing, that Donald Trump has with Nancy Pelosi.
If Thayer is for something, Beshear is against it, and vice versa.
If and when racing returns to any of these states, there is a potential poison pill. No spectators. This is OK in the short term but I haven’t heard much talk about the short term. When it comes to racing, out of sight, out of mind is more apropos than absence makes the heart grow fonder.
No other sport is bleeding customers more or faster than racing. This was true long before the pandemic. The putdown that some sports lose fans to other interests but racing loses fans to death might be macabre but it’s unfortunately true.
You can’t develop new fans when they aren’t allowed to experience the exhilaration of racing. You don’t get this on TV. The prediction that being the only game in town would help racing make new fans was wishful thinking.
Sports talk radio is starving for things to talk about but racing never comes up. Video games generate more conversation. A lot more.
This said, TVG can never be sufficiently thanked for what it has done during the past month or so. I still feel the optics of racing during the pandemic are terrible but mine is a minority opinion.
Without TVG maintaining racing’s presence and allowing its limited fan base to stay active, the game would be dead, perhaps beyond resurrection. This is not a debatable point.
It’s not just the loss of fans that racing need be concerned about. Not even owners are allowed into tracks. This is potentially lethal.
How long do you think non-millionaires–the majority of owners–are going to keep shelling out $100 per diems when they can’t even visit their horse in the barn, can’t bring their fans to see their horses in action and ideally invite them to join a winner’s circle picture.
They won’t hang in indefinitely. As owners drop away, the entire infrastructure, from breeding sheds to auctions to the track, will begin to crumble.
Racing as a television show might serve the interests of ADW sites but it will be a slow death for the sport.
Oaklawn missing an opportunity
Circumstances have done for Oaklawn Park what lavish purses didn’t. Coronavirus lockdowns have elevated the Hot Springs track to the status of capital of racing in America.
The only other significant tracks still in operation are Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs and both have run all their traditional stakes. Oaklawn stretched its key events–the Apple Blossom, Count Fleet, Fantasy–Carousel-into April with the biggest day, next Saturday’s Arkansas Derby and Oaklawn Handicap, still to come on what is normally Kentucky Derby Day.
Alas, it appears Oaklawn’s life at the top is going to be short-lived. May 2 is scheduled to be the final live racing day of 2020.
The question is, does it have to be? Tampa Bay Downs final scheduled race day is May 3 but management successfully petitioned the state of Florida to extend its meeting.
Florida, the only state other than Arkansas to allow uninterrupted racing during the pandemic, traditionally has been racing friendly. Even previously little known Fonner Park in Nebraska is trying to extend its season to take advantage of the current situation.
Oaklawn officials should be making the same plea to their state. As the classic Meatloaf song goes, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” (Gulfstream and Tampa Bay), but there shouldn’t be any reason racing fans shouldn’t have three out of three to choose from until other venues get the go-ahead from their states.
Oaklawn management is saying the purse cupboard is bare. It’s hard to believe this is an insurmountable obstacle.
The enormous handle Oaklawn can expect on May 2 should help replenish purse account somewhat, although the bonanza from admissions and concessions won’t be there with no spectators allowed, even if ADW payments to tracks are mere pennies on the dollar.
Beyond that, Oaklawn should do what most Americans do–live for today and pay for it tomorrow. An opportunity like the one it is being presented might not never come again. Let’s pray it doesn’t.
The bulk of the enormous purses Oaklawn paid this season, an estimated $35 million, up from $28.7 million in 2019, were a product of the wildly popular Instant Racing machines, which in normal years are in operation around the calendar. They, too, have been shut down by the pandemic, so this source of additional purse funds is temporarily unavailable.
But the machines eventually will be back on line, so Oaklawn should borrow against anticipated revenue to fund another month or so of racing. If the payback means optional claiming races won’t open next season with $94,000 purses, so be it.
The horsemen will still be there. So might new players, who have discovered Oaklawn when there aren’t many other options.