By John Furgele
After more than two months, harness racing is on its way back.
Ohio bats leadoff — Scioto Downs will be the first to return to action, opening on Friday (May 22) with 12 races and 100 horses set to pace and trot over the 5/8-mile oval. Northfield Park is readying for a re-opening on May 26.
While harness tracks across the country – many of which depend on revenue from casinos – were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, several thoroughbred tracks were able to stay open and those that did saw very good handle numbers. And, if recent handle numbers from Santa Anita and Churchill Downs tell us anything, it’s that horseplayers missed the action.
Many harness tracks share their grounds with casinos and rely heavily on those revenues to boost purses. It’s one reason why tracks like Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park and Tampa Bay Downs remained open while all harness tracks closed — closed casinos means no purse subsidies.
Looking ahead, to the north, Woodbine Mohawk Park will open on June 5 and the $1 million Pepsi North America Cup stays on the 2020 schedule and will be run Aug. 29 — without spectators.
Jeffrey Gural, who owns The Meadowlands as well as Vernon and Tioga in New York, has been pushing for a re-opening. And New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says horse racing can resume after June 1.
That’s the good news; the bad news is that while harness tracks will open, the adjoining casinos will not and that will negatively impact purses at all the tracks.
“It’s not in my best business interest to open for racing before the casinos get back, but being a horseman, I sympathize with the guys that race with us and the situation they’re in is in no fault their own,” Gural said.
While Gural is eager to get back to racing, he knows that it won’t be easy.
“We have to be diligent and so too, do the horsemen,” he said. ”We cannot afford a single mistake.”
The New York State Sire Stakes were scheduled to begin in May and one track, Buffalo Raceway, has said that it won’t host those races this year. Gural indicated that he would take the Buffalo dates in addition to those already scheduled at Vernon and Tioga.
“We got a lot to work, hopefully, things will become clearer in the next few days,” he said, “People are ready to get back to racing.”
It’s possible that all eight legs might not be contested, but since payments were made at the end of last year, most feel that the schedule will be altered, but ultimately, champions will be crowned.
Mike Sardella is the track announcer at Saratoga Casino Hotel and like many, has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. He was laid off on March 24 and is eager to return to the booth and call the races. He knows the new norm will be challenging. In fact, until the casino reopens, the schedule will be truncated.
“We’re probably going to race two days a week until the casinos open; that’s the foreseeable future,” Sardella said. “It’s a slippery slope for us, but we have to think of the horsemen, they need to make some money. I don’t know how much longer we could keep this up. It’s important to get back to racing.”
Saratoga Casino Hotel is likely to race Sunday and Thursday afternoons at the outset and under Gov. Cuomo’s phased reopening, casinos are under Phase 4, the last phase of the process. If all goes well with regards to COVID-19 numbers, the casinos could open Aug. 1.
When the pandemic hit, Buffalo, Yonkers, and Monticello were all running and Sardella believes that they will be itching to start right after June 1.
“All are planning on getting going,” he said, “Yonkers might take longer because it was the epicenter of the outbreak, but with Belmont coming back in June (June 3), they should be ready to go as well.”
Harrington Raceway in Delaware will return on June 15 and like many, will see a reduction in purses — at least for the short term.
“As of today (May 18) we have not raced for 63 days,” said Salvatore DiMario, the executive director of the Delaware Standardbred Owners Association. “With the casinos shut down, we have lost over $5 million in purses. Money will be tight for a while but it will improve with time. The financial difficulties have been devastating but together we can all work to get things back to the way it was soon.”
Indiana’s Hoosier Park is slated to begin racing on June 16 and Prince Edward Island’s Charlottetown is scheduled to resume on June 6.
While most news features a positive vibe, Pennsylvania remains a center of controversy. In the Keystone state, Gov. Tom Wolf says that racetracks cannot open until the casinos do and those are included in Wolf’s final phase of reopening. Many, including The Meadows-based Ron Burke say it’s unfair to include the race tracks with the casinos when it comes to reopening. Sardella agrees.
“The horses have been on the grounds. They’ve been training, tended to and if protocols are put in place, it would seem reasonable that they could conduct racing,” he said.
There is, however, no timetable for a return to racing at The Meadows, Pocono Downs or Harrah’s Philadelphia.
Woodbine CEO Jim Lawson says that he hopes that The Queen’s Plate, rescheduled for Sept. 12 can have a limited number of fans. Could that carry over to the harness side? Sardella thinks it is unlikely, but not impossible.
“We have enough room for fans to socially distance,” he said. “We don’t get a lot of fans, but even if there are just a few hundred, they create a buzz. It’s just not the same when the place is completely empty. I’m hoping, but maybe it is safer to wait until 2021.”
In a year of the extraordinary, it looks like horse racing is taking some steps to restore some semblance of normalcy.
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As a kid growing up in the Buffalo suburbs in the 1970s and 80s, the radio was one of John Furgele’s best friends. In the evenings, he used to listen to a show on WBEN radio called “Free Form Sports,” hosted by Buffalo broadcast legend Stan Barron. The show ran weeknights from 6 to 11 pm and featured every kind of sport you could imagine. One minute, Mr. Barron was interviewing a Buffalo Sabres player; the next, he was giving high school field hockey scores.
But there was always one thing that caught John’s ear. During those five hours, Barron would give the results from Western New York’s two harness racing tracks — Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs. This is where John learned what exactas, quinellas, trifectas and daily doubles were all about. From then on, he always paid attention to harness racing, and when Niatross (a legendary Western New York horse) hit the scene in 1979, his interest began to blossom.
John believes harness racing is a sport that has the potential to grow and he will explore ways to get that done via marketing, promotion and, above all, the races themselves.
When he’s not watching races, John is busy with his family and his job in sales. Like the pacers and trotters, he does a little running himself and you’ll occasionally find him “going to post” in a local 5K race.