By John Furgele
While professional sports leagues and federations around the world have suspended or postponed their seasons – the 2020 Tokyo Olympics recently fell into line — harness racing has tried to soldier on through the COVID-19 pandemic.
At first, handle was up at many tracks; not a surprising development as it was the only game in town, even without spectators. There was a void, and the sport gamely tried to fill it by operating behind closed doors.
One by one, however, tracks began to suspend racing. MGM Resorts International announced on March 10 it was shuttering Yonkers Raceway following the death (from coronavirus) of former trainer John Brennan, who worked in the track’s racing office. Freehold closed on March 13, and three days later, The Meadowlands – which accounts for more than 75 percent of the live racing handle in New Jersey, according to the state’s racing commission – said it, too, was suspending operations.
Also that day, Buffalo Raceway stopped racing. Saratoga Harness was the last holdout in New York, shutting down after the Sunday, March 22 card, with Miami Valley and Northfield in Ohio, Rosecroft in Maryland, Pompano in Florida, and Woodbine Mohawk, Flamboro, Western Fair and Rideau Carlton pulling the plug in Canada.
CalExpo still running
The only harness track left operating in the United States, as of this writing, is CalExpo, which received permission from state officials to continue racing along with the Los Alamitos quarter-horse track, Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate, the latter two of which are owned by The Stronach Group. Horsemen were able to convince Gov. Gavin Newsom that, racing or no racing, horses need to be looked after seven days a week and racing in the afternoon in a studio format would pose little additional risk.
CalExpo had asked permission to race on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (instead of Friday and Saturday) with TVG broadcasting live, but the California Horse Racing Board denied the request on Monday, March 23.
The track had been hoping to fill a void by racing on Tuesday and Wednesday to beef up handle, but that path, like everything else, seems uncertain.
Although the timeline remains vague, people in the industry are hopeful harness racing will be back and that those who followed it for the first time this month will check it out again. Simple, strategic and brilliant, it warrants another look.