‘People Need Reassurance’: COVID-19 Lockdown Leaves Racing In Limbo At Woodbine

While horsemen and racing fans in the U.S. are beginning to make summertime plans to attend their favorite tracks in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Del Mar, Calif., and Oceanport, N.J., it’s a different story north of the border in Ontario, Canada, where the province has been on a COVID-19 lockdown for more than a month and the start of the live racing season at Woodbine, originally scheduled for April 17, remains on hold.

The latest stay at home order issued by the provincial government was put in place April 8 and will last at least six weeks. It banned a range of indoor and outdoor activities, with horse racing – even without spectators  – not permitted.

A surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations led to the government’s lockdown order, though by comparison Ontario has suffered far less than many U.S. states. The province, with a population of approximately 15 million, reports 480,000 COVID-19 cases and 8,187 deaths since the pandemic began, according to the Toronto Star. By comparison, U.S. states like Illinois and Pennsylvania (each with a population of about 13 million) have experienced more than triple the number of COVID-19 fatalities as Ontario, based on Johns Hopkins statistics.

The number of new infections in Ontario is hovering around 3,000 daily and beginning to decline as the government’s slow-to-begin vaccine rollout picks up momentum. Ontario officials hope to have 65% of the adult population given at least one shot of the vaccine by the end of May. Currently, 43% of Ontario adults have received at least one shot.

On Wednesday, Woodbine officials began hosting a Pop-Up COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic at the track for essential frontline workers caring for the horses and for members of the surrounding community.

The continued ban on racing is perplexing to many horse people who felt the 2020 race meeting, which opened on June 6 after a delay, was successfully conducted under strict COVID-19 protocols involving essential workers.

“Truly it is the same people handling the horses in the morning that would handle them in the afternoon,” said Canadian Hall of Fame trainer Josie Carroll. “We’re allowing people to do the essential care for the horses. The jockeys who would ride in the afternoon are working horses in the morning. There would be no more risk to have racing – and that’s a key point. We don’t have to allow spectators, owners currently aren’t allowed into the stables, and there’s only a few additional people in the afternoon. That’s our frustration.”

By way of comparison, every U.S. state has resumed racing, many of them now allowing a limited number of spectators on-site while still enforcing protocols for social distancing and facial coverings. Nearly 100,000 people attended the April 30-May 1 Kentucky Oaks and Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

Carroll said she is “hopeful” racing will begin by the end of May. In the meantime, as a hedge, she has kept some horses in Kentucky to race at Churchill Downs while preparing a string of 45 runners for an anticipated opening in late May.

She fears an extended delay may put many Canadian trainers and owners out of business.

“I’m in a better position than some others,” she said, “but the people who have horses at Woodbine that need to compete locally, they need racing so badly. Our smaller owners are going to be in a lot of trouble. They can only keep pouring money in so long with nothing back in purses before they go elsewhere.”

Carroll said owner-breeder operations are especially hard hit. “It’s difficult for them to make that investment to continue to breed when they don’t have any purse money,” she said.

Track officials and the Ontario Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association are working with the Ontario government to show them how the sport can be conducted safely.

“We reiterated to the government the exemplary way we did things last year,” she said. “It was a remarkable achievement.” Carroll said there were only two positive cases for COVID-19, both in November, with one jockey reportedly contracting the virus from a family member and one valet also testing positive.

Despite the 2020 safety record, the Thoroughbred meet came to a premature end because of another government lockdown.

In the meantime, the work goes on in Woodbine’s stable area. Horses are being fed, cared for, and prepared to race. The work tab last Saturday, May 1, included 225 horses breezing over the all-weather surface. Horsepeople are anxiously awaiting word from the government that they can resume the sport they love and depend upon for their livelihoods.

“People need reassurance,” Carroll said. “They need some good news. It will be a real blow if it doesn’t happen by the end of the month. There will be long-term ramifications to our industry if we don’t begin racing soon. But we are cautiously optimistic the government will do the right thing.”

The post ‘People Need Reassurance’: COVID-19 Lockdown Leaves Racing In Limbo At Woodbine appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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