Like their counterparts in other sports, Canterbury Park officials still don’t know when their season might begin, or what it will look like. But they have submitted a plan to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to take the first step toward live racing: getting horses on the grounds.
The Shakopee track has requested a critical sector worker exemption that would allow horses and people to move into the stable area beginning May 4, even if the state’s stay-at-home order is extended past that date. The Department of Agriculture is reviewing Canterbury’s proposal, which includes detailed safety protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Andrew Offerman, Canterbury’s vice president of racing operations, said the department’s response “has been encouraging’’ and that a decision could be made early this week.
Canterbury postponed its original opening date of May 15, and Offerman expects “relatively substantial changes’’ to the schedule and purses. But he said the immediate concern was getting permission to open the barns soon, to accommodate horses and people left with no other place to go as other tracks close.
Seven U.S. racetracks are running without spectators. Turf Paradise in Phoenix, the winter home to many Canterbury trainers, is among many that ended their seasons early. It allowed horses to stay on the grounds temporarily but will close its stable area April 30.
“It’s been an all-out effort over the last two weeks to make sure we can get the backstretch open,’’ Offerman said. “We have a responsibility to the horsepeople who count on our facility in the summer to be a shelter for the horses and their caretakers. We need to be there for them.’’
As states began issuing stay-at-home orders to limit the spread of COVID-19, some granted exemptions to racetracks, because horses must be cared for and exercised. Those tracks are requiring workers to follow safety precautions such as maintaining social distancing, temperature checks and frequent sanitizing of equipment.
Canterbury’s proposal borrows from those protocols, plus guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and the University of Minnesota’s equine extension program. The track plans to allow only essential workers into the stable area. They must answer a health questionnaire and will be subject to daily temperature checks, as well as state recommendations on wearing masks.
Trainers will be required to clean everything in the barn daily. The track’s 200 dorm rooms, which are spread among 16 buildings, will be limited to one person each; two buildings will be left vacant and used for quarantine if necessary.
Scott Rake, president of the Minnesota Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, estimated it will cost about $40,000 per week to keep Canterbury’s stable area open for horse care and exercise. Tracks traditionally do not charge rent for stalls or dorm rooms. His organization, which represents the track’s thoroughbred horsemen, will dip into this summer’s purse fund to cover most of the costs in May.
“We have some latitude to do that, and we’re going to have to do it,’’ Rake said. “This is a humanitarian crisis. You have grooms who are completely dependent on racetracks to provide free housing, and horsemen and women who rely on tracks to provide a safe place to keep their horses. It’s a unique situation.’’
If Canterbury is allowed to open its stable area and training track May 4, Offerman anticipates 250 to 300 horses will arrive from Phoenix over the first two weeks, with more coming later from other tracks. He already has received 2,300 applications for the track’s 1,600 stalls as trainers contemplate their options.
The lingering uncertainty created by the pandemic has left tracks all over the country struggling to chart a course forward, and the lack of details has left trainers unsure of where they will race this summer. Offerman hopes to get some clarity about Canterbury’s season within two weeks. Track officials are analyzing multiple scenarios — including racing with no spectators or limited attendance — and he said “all options are on the table’’ regarding when to start, whether to shorten the planned 65-day season and how to adjust the stakes schedule.
“Our focus now needs to shift to, what can a racing season look like?’’ Offerman said. “It’s safe to say that purse levels, race days, all those things will have to be reevaluated. There will likely be changes in a whole bunch of things, depending on what our racing schedule can look like.’’