The Impact of COVID-19 on the Horse Racing World

COVID-19 or the novel coronavirus has impacted the world of horses, horse racing, horse sales, competitions, barn visits, horse rescues, veterinarian visits, and more.

The impact to racing is costing millions of dollars.  Losses are tied to canceled race dates and suspended casino operations adding up.  Racetracks that continue to race behind closed doors are seeing reduced revenues. Horse racing in the UK and in the US are holding some of the racing behind closed doors and being broadcast online and on TV.

The Royal Ascot 2020 race that was to be held on June 16-20 will not be able to take place as an event open to the public. It may prove possible to run the Royal Ascot races behind closed doors, dependent on Government and public health policy and the approval of the BHA, British Horseracing Authority.

Other racetracks have completely halted racing, and casinos that generate purse money have suspended operations. The COVID-19 outbreak is taking a significant economic toll on the sport. As authorities are taking action to mitigate the spread, and with the novel coronavirus being labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization, horse racing is not immune to the impact.

The BHA has defined a plan to have racings at tracks with hotels on site, where jockeys, officials, and other essential staff could be quarantined. Racing has continued behind closed doors in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, and at a handful of tracks in the United States. Germany has plans for a scaled-down racing to resume from May 1.

The iconic Kentucky Derby has been postponed to September 5, the first Saturday in September; Keeneland has canceled its Spring Meet; live racing has been canceled at Aqueduct the rest of the spring after a Belmont-based backstretch worker tested positive. COVID-19 is having a major impact on the horse racing industry that will last for years.

As the majority of horse racing tracks have been closed, which is preventing breeders from selling their horses.  For example, Kentucky’s Thoroughbred breeding industry is at a crucial time: it’s the height of breeding season.  The mares are foaling right now. You can’t stop mares foaling.

Thousands of Bluegrass mares are being vanned to stallions, often to other farms, for “live cover,” the only way that the Thoroughbred industry breeds horses.  Thoroughbred breeders are taking extra precautions, like wearing gloves and isolating personnel, to keep COVID-19 from spreading from farm to farm.

Large horse farms already are very familiar with biosecurity protocols, which are in place to avoid accidental transmission of any number equine diseases. The only difference now is the addition of concern for the health of humans which bring new breeding protocols as defined by The Jockey Club.

For trainers with operations of all sizes, that has meant their income stopped in its tracks, and some are already wondering how long they can keep going.  Gallopers, grooms, assistants, farriers, jockeys who depend on horse trainers as their source of income – all are in survival mode.  Horse vanners or haulers have a big decline in business because horses suddenly can’t ship into the next track or training center on their circuit. Many independent contractors like pony riders derive their income from per-horse fees they charge trainers to escort horses in the morning or afternoon.  The uncertainty is the problem.

The Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation is calling for donations to assist backstretch workers affected by the COVID-19 outbreak across the United States. All donations to the foundation will be designated for COVID-19 relief until further notice.  The foundation’s current priority is addressing the immediate need to stock food pantries at racetracks around the country, and it is coordinating with the Race Track Chaplaincy of America in this effort.

The Foundation’s support represents virtually every facet of the Thoroughbred industry, from jockeys, trainers, exercise riders, and grooms to office personnel and other employees of racetracks, racing organizations, and breeding farms.  Assistance can come in any number of forms, including financial aid, medication, surgical and hospital costs, therapeutic equipment, voice-recognition computers for quadriplegics, and wheelchair accessible vans.

On April 1, the Foundation donated 1,000 Kroop’s Brands face shields to the New York Racing Association (NYRA) racetrack community as it deals with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. NYRA’s Aqueduct Racetrack is the location for a temporary medical facility being constructed to help during the pandemic. Koop’s makes goggles for sports such as horse racing and skydiving. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company began creating a face shield to help protect medical personnel and others from the coronavirus.

Other horse racing business owners are shifting course as a company to help fill a depleted resource during the coronavirus pandemic. Christine A. Moore Millinery is producing masks for healthcare workers; Lexington-based Bloodline Products, the maker of jockey silks, created two different types of surgical masks as well as hospital gowns for medical professionals; and Major League Baseball teamed with Fanatics apparel CEO Michael Rubin to makes masks and gowns rather than jerseys.

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