Covid-19 and Some of the Possible Long Term Effects on Horse Racing: A New Normal

March 31, 2020

Covid-19 has put some unexpected and unprecedented chaos into the “modern” world. Horse Racing, the Sport of Kings, already struggling on many fronts, is of course not exempt.

The “new normal” what will it be?

We are all seeing the short term impact. The Kentucky Derby has been postponed until September 5th, 2020. That is as of now. In reality who knows what things will be like come September. To quote Robert Burns; “the best laid plans of mice and men Gang aft a-gley.” The Dubai World Cup along with several meets and races have been cancelled or postponed. The entire Keeneland Spring meet, a premiere boutique three weeks of racing has been scrapped due to Covid-19.

The moving of the Kentucky Derby from the first Saturday in May to September, assuming it is indeed run, changes a lot for this year, but can also have some long term impacts. For 2020 it may very well not be the first time three-year olds run a mile and a quarter, a long benchmark of the Derby. The Travers as of now is scheduled for the Saturday just prior to the Run for the Roses. Who knows what happens there, and if they run what type of field will they get running for all intents and purposes against the Kentucky Derby. Conquistador Cielo won the Metropolitan Mile or Met Mile on Monday, against older horses, and Woody Stephens wheeled him back just 5 days later on Saturday to win the Belmont Stakes. No Lasix, no drugs, just hay oats and water. Can you imagine a horse winning the Travers and coming back a week later to win the Kentucky Derby? Neither can I, but it would be something.

The prep or points races still have their points, but I don’t know we can call them preps at this point. We will have older more developed horses in this year’s Kentucky Derby. That is probably a good thing. It has long been argued that we push our horses too young and under developed in the states in hopes of making the Derby. Perhaps this year’s Derby horses will prove more durable due to the extra time they will get prior to such a physically taxing race. Can that lead to a permanent change in the date the Kentucky Derby is run? Probably not, but if we are “truly” all about what is best for the horse, and not the bank accounts it should be looked at. What about the two-year olds? Racing is pretty much on hold for them. Will this lead to changes in how we race them and how hard we push them? Will we see less injuries and more durability because of this? It is something racing should look long and hard at. This can also impact how they are prepped for sale.

We may also see the Preakness run prior to the Kentucky Derby. Would the progression in distance as opposed to the cut back be better for the horses? I don’t know, and neither do you, but that is also something that we should possibly explore. I don’t think anyone knows when or if we run the Belmont, but it will be odd to see three year old horses cutting back in distance for the Run for the Roses.

It should not be a secret nor a surprise to anyone racetracks prefer you wager through an ADW. Preferably theirs. At Gulfstream if you wish to wager on an ADW that is not their Xpressbet, who is now 1st Bet, who snuck onto the scene in a mysterious quietly fashion, you have to turn off the WiFi on your phone and use cellular time. Only Xpressbet or 1st Bet will work on their WiFi. If you try to use another ADW like NYRA Bets and don’t turn off your WiFi you’ll get shut-out even at Gulfstream which is not exactly easy to do. Racetracks push us towards ADW’s with rebates and deals better than you get with cash on track. They want less clerks, and less fans actually at the races with the exception of boutique meets and the super days. This is obvious. Additionally, now that we know how dirty money is, ahem, and how we should wash our hands after we touch it, do you exactly want to handle it and pass it around like the olds days?

We may see a day when no cash is accepted at the track.

Covid-19 has allowed racing to experiment with their future business model on a larger scale than they would have been able to under normal conditions. The tracks that are running, and that did run briefly before shutting down, did so and are doing so without fans. I believe they welcome this, especially with so few tracks running that they are seeing increased handle. This can be a long term permanent change. If racetracks only invite fans on big race days, or at boutique meets, they can charge high prices, use cheaper temporary help, and still reap in all the handle on those and the other days. They’ve already lost the crown of the number one spectator sport in America. The racing game has been evolving to this, planned or unplanned, Covid-19 is accelerating and paving the way. Lines for betting at the teller windows, even using self service terminals one player after another may be forever gone. Even the common handshake is in question now.

I have said for a while that less is more might be the only way racing survives and potentially thrives again as it has in the past. I don’t think Will Rogers Downs and Fonner Park have a lot of fans when they have to run up against shall we say more favored and well known racetracks, but when they are the only game in town, look out. Racing has always held the philosophy gamblers are degenerates and will bet on anything, including any product they produce, regardless of the rake, corruption, conflicts, or not exactly level playing field. Many of us continually prove them right.

It was brought to my attention TVG has started explaining the most basic of bets and payouts to their viewers. I guess they are trying to capitalize on being the only game in town and catering to all those potential new fans tuning in to watch. I get the whole attempt to bring in new fans. You can’t do that if you can’t hold your existing ones. We always have a disconnect from the reality of the game by racing managers, racing media, and all racing shot-callers. Alright, newsflash, the only people watching TVG today are hardcore players, the only ones the broadcasts don’t talk to, address, or even acknowledge. If you think these people, your audience, needs to know or be told what a 5-1 shot pays for a $2 dollar wager, you’re in trouble. I can only hope a long term effect of Covid-19 is not taking the already far too elementary coverage we get from TVG down to an unbearable level for those who actually know what an exacta is.

There has been no announcement on Saratoga, or Del Mar, two huge summer meets that both attract people from all over the country and even the world. Royal Ascot in the U. K. also. The Breeders’ Cup dates will be here before we know it as well. I don’t know about you, but the prospect of plane flights and hotels do not seem enticing to me. I always thought planes and hotels were filthy anyway, and I fly first and am a Ritz Carlton type of guy. I believe it is a pass for me for now. A long term question is how much of a corona Covid-19 hit can our industry withstand? I don’t think we know, but I am afraid we will find out.

The effects of this pandemic will be felt world wide and in all sports. Not all these effects will be temporary. They never are. Look at September 11th, many things changed forever. None of us know what the new normal will be,

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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