By Noel Michaels
Oaklawn Park, which played such a vital role in getting horse racing through the coronavirus-related shutdown along with Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs, has closed for the season.
The historic track in Hot Springs, Arkansas went out with a bang on Saturday with the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) and two divisions of the Arkansas Derby (G1) resulting in an eye-popping, one-day handle of over $40 million.
With Oaklawn out of the picture and the demand for something to bet on clearly soaring at the moment, horseplayers are looking at what’s next. For the moment the picture looks somewhat murky, yet improving, as other tracks begin to ramp up attempts to either start or resume their postponed racing seasons.
Here’s a look at the current state of racing at several key locations around the country. It seems that things should start to improve quickly for horse racing fans beginning in the middle of May as tracks make their plans to conduct spectator-free live racing.
First, let’s look at the Triple Crown situation. Oaklawn’s split divisions of the Arkansas Derby are in the books, both won by Bob Baffert-trained horses — Charlatan and Nadal. That pair has locked-up spots in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby (G1) on Sept. 5, and if the race were now they would vie for favoritism along with the Barclay Tagg-trained Florida Derby winner, Tiz the Law. Both the Maryland Jockey Club and the Preakness (G1), and the New York Racing Association and the Belmont Stakes (G1) are still finalizing plans for running the other two legs of the Triple Crown.
So what’s next for the 3-year-olds? Well, some good news appears to be on the horizon for bettors in that Santa Anita Park hopefully has come to an agreement with Los Angeles County to resume racing on May 15. Along with the return of Santa Anita came the release of Santa Anita’s revised stakes schedule that includes the Santa Anita Derby (G1), to be run with a $400,000 purse on Saturday, June 6. That race now becomes the next target for Derby hopefuls everywhere. On the fillies side, the Santa Anita Oaks (G1) also is scheduled for June 6.
Santa Anita isn’t the only major track preparing to reopen. Most notably,
Churchill Downs announced plans to open its spring meet on May 16. It will join Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park as May’s top simulcast signals. Also, Tampa Bay Downs has extended its meet through May 30.
Two tracks that many handicappers have become accustomed to for the first time during the coronavirus lockdown have been Fonner Park and Will Rogers Downs, which have filled racing calendars on dark days for the past month. Will Rogers will continue until May 23. Fonner applied for a meet extension, and will remain open until May 31.
Several mid-Atlantic tracks seem ready to re-open. West Virginia tracks Charles Town and Mountaineer Park have been given clearance to open. Charles Town will re-start on May 14. Mountaineer Park’s meet is scheduled to open on May 31. Maryland (Laurel and Pimlico), and Pennsylvania (Parx, Penn National and Presque Isle), are reportedly close to making announcements about when racing in those states might be able to resume.
Maryland’s MTHA said to plan for a “mid-May resumption of live racing.” Presque Isle Downs is targeting June 8 for the start of its meet. Meanwhile, Monmouth Park has already pushed back its original June 1 opening day to July 3. As of now, the date for the Haskell Invitational (G1) on July 18 remains unchanged. Delaware Park’s website lists its opening day on May 27.
Perhaps the most anticipated bit of news for horse racing fans, beside the resolution of the dates of the Triple Crown races, is the potential re-opening of racing in New York, which has been hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. NYRA is considering a return to spectator-less racing at Belmont Park as early as May 22 or May 29. NYRA has said it intends to host its summer racing season at Saratoga as planned but without spectators, from July 16-Sept. 7.
Fans of the big summer meets will also be happy to know that Del Mar will also open as planned for its originally-scheduled race dates from July 18-Sept. 7. One exciting announcement was that Del Mar plans to host a new Kentucky Derby prep race, perhaps four or five weeks out from Sept. 5. Before Del Mar, the Los Alamitos summer thoroughbred meet is scheduled as planned for two weeks, June 25-July 5.
Two more tracks that also appear close to making announcements about re-opening are Lone Star Park and Canterbury Park. Lone Star’s stable area re-opened on May 4, but has not indicated when it might re-start racing. Canterbury’s stable area will re-open on May 8, and the track has indicated it plans to start racing again in early June. Woodbine has also offered a rough outline for the opening of its meet, with the CEO saying in late April that the track was ”approximately six weeks away from returning live racing.”
News out of Illinois is not as positive. Arlington’s original opening day of May 1 was first pushed back to June 1, and later classified as postponed indefinitely. The track also has no contract agreement with Illinois horsemen. Hawthorne has no plans to re-open for Thoroughbred racing until its casino is finished in October. Downstate Fairmount Park, which had been set for its most important meet in many years this season, has also move away from its postponed indefinitely status.
Any track you don’t see on this list is still currently either postponed or delayed until further notice.
Slowly but surely, horse racing is making its return and will be returning in most places in the next month or so. Racing without spectators is the new normal for now. But some racing, for simulcast bettors only, is definitely better than nothing.
Gulfstream Park: Open
Tampa Bay Downs: Open through May 30
Santa Anita: Opening May 15
Churchill Downs: Opening May 16
Fonner Park: Open through May 31
Will Rogers Downs: Open through May 23
Charles Town: Resuming May 14
Mountaineer Park: Opening May 31
Delaware Park: Opening May 27 (according to website)
Presque Isle Downs: Earliest opening June 8
Monmouth Park: Opening July 3
Los Alamitos (day): Open June 25-July 5
Belmont Park: Targeting May 22 or May 29 opening (tentative)
Saratoga: Plans regular dates July 16-Sept. 7
Del Mar: Plans regular dates July 18 –Sept. 7
Lone Star Park: Stable area opens May 4, live racing to follow
Canterbury Park: Stable area re-opens May 8; live racing in June
Penn National: Racing dates pending
Parx: Racing dates pending
Laurel: Racing dates pending
Pimlico: Racing dates pending
Woodbine: Open mid-June (tentative)
Arlington: Postponed indefinitely
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.