On a normal Saturday, Robertino Diodoro would have been surrounded by at least 20,000 people at Oaklawn Park. Walking from the paddock to the grandstand to the winner’s circle, the horse trainer usually has to navigate a crowd at the Arkansas track, shaking lots of hands along the way.

Since the onslaught of the coronavirus, there have been no normal days. Diodoro now has to fill out a form and have his temperature taken by a paramedic before he can even enter the paddock or grandstand. Last Saturday, with no fans allowed at the track, Diodoro watched in near silence as Nomizar won the eighth race.

“We’re still running at Oaklawn, which has been a lifesaver,” said Diodoro, who has won three training titles at Canterbury Park. “With so many places shut down, it’s been a complete nightmare. I don’t think I’ve ever been this stressed. If it doesn’t turn real quick, there are going to be a lot of people in trouble.”

Horse racing is one of the few sports still running in a country hunkering down to fight COVID-19. Some tracks, such as Oaklawn and California’s Santa Anita, have continued racing in front of grandstands that are closed to the public. Other tracks in places such as Maryland and Ohio have been shuttered completely, and Aqueduct in New York suspended racing after a worker at nearby Belmont Park tested positive.”

Canterbury Park is scheduled to begin live racing May 15, but track President Randy Sampson said it is “highly unlikely” the meet will open on time. The track temporarily closed its card room and on-track simulcast area March 16, a blow to the bottom lines of both Canterbury and its horsemen. With those revenue sources halted indefinitely, less money will be generated for purses, which could cause two or three days to be cut from the 65-day season.

“It’s eerie. I’ll go sit in the grandstand and have a soda, and I’m the only person there. During the race, there’s no crowd noise. In the winner’s circle, there’s nobody there. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Richard Grunder, jockey agent and fill-in Canterbury announcer

For now, Sampson said, he’s confident Canterbury can press on. But he worries about horse owners … ones who are financially strapped and might not be able to afford their animals’ keep. And the trainers who race at Canterbury in the summer, but are now at tracks that have been idled, with nowhere to go. And the jockeys and starting-gate crews who work in close quarters.

“There are no easy answers, and no script to follow,” Sampson said. “It’s a terrible situation, with no end in sight.”

It’s also changing day by day. Diodoro has horses at several tracks, including a large string that was running at Turf Paradise in Phoenix until it shut down March 14. He shipped some of those to Sam Houston Race Park in Texas, only to see it close Sunday.

“I’ve never been so nervous when I see an owner’s phone number come up on my phone,” Diodoro said. “I’m scared they’re going to call me and say they’ve lost their shorts in business, or in the stock market, and they’re going to have to sell their horses. It’s a mess.”

Concern for industry workers

Canterbury’s card club was bustling in January and February. It’s now empty after a voluntary shutdown, and Sampson expects it could stay that way for as long as eight weeks.

The track still plans to pay about $14 million in purses this summer. Approximately half of Canterbury’s purses are funded by supplemental money from its deal with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which will not be affected. A percentage of card club and simulcast revenue also goes to purses, and while the stoppage will reduce that, Sampson said the shortfall should be manageable.

“If the shutdown is only a month or so, we can maintain purses by reducing races by two or three days,” Sampson said.

His greater concern lies with the trainers, horse owners, grooms and other people in the industry. Several Canterbury trainers race at Turf Paradise in the winter. When it shut down, it initially told trainers that everyone would have to leave by March 28, stunning those who couldn’t find a place at another track or didn’t have a farm.

Canterbury considered opening its stable area early to accommodate both the horses and the caretakers who live in track dormitories. Turf Paradise now is allowing them to stay, and Canterbury plans to open its barns to horses sometime after May 1. But the eviction notice stoked fears of what could happen if the coronavirus forces complete closures.

“There are concerns about the welfare of the horses, and where they all end up,” said Andrew Offerman, Canterbury’s vice president of racing operations. “When you think about the quantity of horses that are stabled at some of these tracks, there probably aren’t enough farms or facilities to accept those horses, or enough people to provide exercise. That’s a significant thing weighing on our minds.”

State veterinarian Dr. Lynn Hovda said the horses are not at risk for infection, because they don’t get the same coronavirus that humans do. There is risk, though, for people who work with them.

Some jockeys, including stars such as Irad Ortiz Jr., have stopped riding because of concerns about how quickly the coronavirus could spread at the track.

“If there’s a positive test with a jockey, do you have to quarantine the entire jockey colony?” Sampson said. “Then you can’t race. And what happens to a barn, with all the people interacting, if someone gets it? Are they going to quarantine all those people? And who takes care of the horses then?

“There are some really unique challenges for the horse industry. You don’t have the ability to just tell everybody to stay home.”

‘It’s eerie’

Diodoro praised the tracks that are still racing without spectators. He can’t shutter his business, he said, because the horses must be fed, exercised and groomed. By continuing to run, he and his owners at least have a chance to win money to pay the bills.

Still, it’s hardly business as usual. Diodoro said veterinarians and horseshoers also must have their temperatures taken at the stable gate before entering. Richard Grunder, a jockey agent and fill-in track announcer at Canterbury, is calling races at Florida’s Tampa Bay Downs solely for a simulcast audience.

“It’s eerie,” Grunder said. “I’ll go sit in the grandstand and have a soda, and I’m the only person there. During the race, there’s no crowd noise. In the winner’s circle, there’s nobody there. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

With no spectators—and no on-track handle — Grunder said Tampa Bay Downs is losing money by continuing to race. Canterbury is certain to face challenges, too.

Sampson and Offerman have considered how their fields might shrink if cash-starved owners can’t afford to keep horses. If the season is delayed for a longer period, Canterbury might use some purse money to help owners pay expenses. Scott Rake, president of the group that represents Canterbury’s horsemen, said there have been discussions about whether it would be economically feasible to run with no spectators.

“That might be viable for two weekends,’’ Rake said. “All the overhead doesn’t change much, and when you’re not charging admission or capturing that on-track handle, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.’’

Rake said the horsemen want to do their part to keep the races running, in whatever form is possible. Grunder, who has worked at Canterbury for more than three decades, is counting on it.

“I’m really hoping with a little time, [the coronavirus] will level off,” Grunder said. “A summer without racing at Canterbury? I don’t even want to think about it.”