Horse Racing Feels COVID-19 Ripple

August 16, 2020

Colonial Downs second track this week to cancel remainder of meet as Triple Crown jurisdictions firm up COVID-19 protocols

First Turf Paradise cancelled the remainder of their 2020-2021 meet. Then Colonial Downs, in just their second season back in five years dark, sent out an announcement Friday “It is with regret that we have to cancel the remainder of the Colonial [2020] meet due to recent positive COVID-19 test results.” The track is turning its attention to racing in 2021.

Colonial Downs said the decision was made in an abundance of caution, and because of recent test results. The decision comes in the aftermath of race cancellations Tuesday and Wednesday, after it emerged that jockey Trevor McCarthy tested positive for the Coronavirus on Tuesday.

McCarthy, according to agent Scott Silver, dealt with flu-like symptoms Sunday and Monday. He was off his mounts both days before being tested Tuesday. Silver said that McCarthy, by Monday afternoon, was feeling much better.

On-site testing at the New Kent track in the days after McCarthy’s positive result was received revealed multiple other cases.

Colonial Downs, in making its decision to cancel, collaborated with the Virginia Department of Health, Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent Protection Association and Virginia Racing Commission.

“We sincerely appreciate everyone’s cooperation and support,” Colonial Downs Group wrote in a statement. “This was a difficult decision, but the best one for Virginia’s racing community.”

Colonial Downs headed into this year’s meet — the second since racing resumed last year under the new ownership of what’s now Colonial Downs Group, following a five-year hiatus — with an 18-race days scheduled running Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Racing started July 28, and was to continue through Sept. 2.

The track was also operating this year’s races without spectators due to the pandemic.

Jill Byrne, Colonial Downs’ vice president of racing operations, said last month that the track attracted about 600 horses this year, about double the total of last year. Daily purses were originally expected to average about $500,000, but the number dropped to about $340,000 because of COVID-19’s effect on purse revenue sources, including the Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums that Colonial Downs operates.

Maryland and Preakness

With the new events in Virginia, Maryland, where the 145th Preakness will take place on Saturday, October 3, is revising their  COVID-19 Quarantine Policy.

Several jockeys who ride regularly at Laurel also rode at Colonial before the meet was cancelled, including Trevor McCarthy, Forest Boyce, Charles Lopez, Jorge Ruiz and Avery Whisman. The Maryland Jockey Club (MJC) has set protocols for all jockeys who rode during the abbreviated meet at Colonial Downs.

The MJC has extended its jockey protocols and quarantine policy for all riders and others as a result of cancellation of the remainder of this year’s Colonial Downs meet because of COVID-19 positives.

Jockeys who rode races at the Virginia track and all dormitory residents of Colonial Downs during this time are prohibited from the grounds of all MJC facilities until Aug. 27 and must produce a negative COVID-19 test obtained and resulted within 72 hours of that date to be granted access. 

This is in addition to other quarantine policies currently in place. Previously, MJC announced that Jockeys currently riding out of state who come to Maryland must quarantine for 14 days from their return from another state and must produce a negative COVID-19 test result obtained and resulted within 72 hours of riding in a race in Maryland.

“The MJC considers the health and safety of our team, horsemen and riders as our number one focus,” MJC President Sal Sinatra commented. “Upon consultation with our excellent team of doctors at MedStar Health, as part of our renowned Horsemen’s Health System with MTHA, we feel aggressive policies are important to keep our community safe while protecting the livelihoods of the thousands of horsemen who rely on this industry.”

The MJC will continue to provide updates as warranted. Laurel Park, beginning Aug. 27, will hold the seven days of racing vacated by the Maryland State Fair at Timonium because of COVID-19 restrictions.

The Preakness meet at Pimlico begins Sep. 24 and runs Sept. 24 – Oct. 3. Maryland Jockey Club has not released any information regarding Pimlico or Preakness COVID-19 protocol.

Kentucky Derby

Kentucky is also taking precautions for the imminent Kentucky Derby on September 5. After announcing there would be no general admission and 40% limited seating capacity, they are turning their attention to the jockeys who will pilot the probable field.

Jockeys riding the week of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs will be required to arrive by Aug. 31, submit to COVID-19 testing and have a negative result before being cleared to ride, according to track protocols distributed.

Although the CDC recommends a 14-day quarantine and most tracks that have closed their jockeys’ rooms to out-of-state riders abided by the CDC guidelines, or at least a 10-day period followed by other jurisdictions, Churchill has opted for a 6-day quarantine instead. 

Taking into consideration input from the jockeys who ride out of state just before and right after the Derby and may be required to quarantine in another jurisdiction, and those without confirmed mounts at Churchill, the quarantine time was shortened and additional protocols have been put in place.

All jockeys who intend to ride at Churchill Downs during Derby week must declare their intention to ride before Aug. 18. Out-of-state committed jockeys must then have a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gold standard RT-PCR COVID-19 nasopharyngeal test performed Aug. 24, the only test the track will accept. Those results must then be received by Churchill Downs prior to their arrival.

“Everybody is trying to do what is best for the industry and everyone’s safety and health,” Jockeys’ Guild president and CEO Terry Meyocks said.

The track will conduct COVID-19 testing of jockeys at a designated tent inside the stable gate during the morning of Aug. 31. Another test will be administered the morning of Sept. 3.

Jockeys wishing to gain entrance to the stable area before Derby week may receive a test at Churchill Downs Aug. 18-24.

In addition to repeat testing, jockeys must agree to properly wear face coverings at all times except during the running of a race. They must also social distance and abide by public-health guidelines. 

Churchill plans to have auxiliary jockeys’ rooms for riders traveling in from out of state.

Jockeys’ room personnel must also undergo the same testing protocols as riders to have access to the jockeys’ room. Jockey agents will not be allowed access to the stable area from Aug. 22 through Sept. 6, and post position draws will be conducted via video conference.

As for the jockeys’ return to their home circuit, spokesperson Pat McKenna said the New York Racing Association will adhere to its current policy and riders who leave Saratoga will not be allowed to participate at the Spa for the remainder of the 40-day meet that ends Sept. 7. 

“These travel restrictions are designed to protect the health and safety of the jockeys competing here in New York at a time when COVID-19 cases continue to rise in states across the country,” he said.

He added that protocols for the fall Belmont Park meet will be announced at a later date.

California

It’s been only one month since the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club had canceled its racing program on July 15 after 15 jockeys and seven other workers tested positive for COVID-19.

Fourteen of the 15 jockeys were from a group of Del Mar jockeys who raced over the July 4 weekend at Los Alamitos – raising to 19 the total number of positive COVID-19 tests among jockeys who competed at the Orange County track.

All seven of the non-riding personnel, who work in the jockeys’ room at the track, were at Los Alamitos the week before Del Mar opened.

The 10-day quarantine expired July 23 for those who tested positive and Del Mar resumed racing July 24. The three days lost that weekend will be made up on Thursdays later in the nine-week meeting. The weekend’s featured races, the San Diego Handicap and Eddie Read Stakes, were run July 25.

Victor Espinoza tested positive for COVID-19 on July 9, the eve of Del Mar’s opening day. He voluntarily sought a test after learning two riders he had contact with at Los Alamitos — Martin Garcia and Luis Saez — tested positive earlier last week.

Prat, who won two of the last three summer riding championships at Del Mar, tested positive July 12 after returning from riding Saturday at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.

After the positive tests for Espinoza and Prat, Del Mar officials requested assistance from the San Diego County Health Department to test all jockeys and jockey room personnel who had been at Del Mar for the three days of racing the last weekend.

The testing of more than three dozen jockeys and workers close to them was completed Tuesday, July 14 at Del Mar and the results were reported Wednesday to track officials.

Jockeys Eduard Kennis Rojas Fernandez, Agapito Delgadillo, Drayden Van Dyke and Umberto Rispoli also tested positive.

Del Mar opened its 28-day summer meeting without spectators and under a set of safety protocols for essential workers that were drafted with the assistance of medical experts.

The track was already providing health screening, monitoring and testing for workers in the barn area and elsewhere. Workers on the backstretch have been isolated from the jockeys.

More COVID-19 testing was made available to backstretch workers and other personnel at Del Mar. Before racing resumed, the track reconfigured and expand the jockeys’ quarters, including moving some of the activities normally held in the jockeys’ room to an adjacent area.

Only jockeys based in California have been permitted to ride at Del Mar for the remainder of the summer season – meaning riders from the east will not be allowed to fly in and ride in the bigger stakes races this season. Also, local jockeys who leave the track to ride at other California venues will not be allowed to return to Del Mar.

Del Mar had been requiring all riders traveling from other jurisdictions to be tested prior to being able to ride at the track, a protocol that Del Mar Thoroughbred Club CEO Joe Harper said worked to catch cases of COVID-19.  

Photo: Although it seems as if it happened years ago, the 2019 Kentucky Derby is a reminder that things don’t always go as expected in horse racing. Credit: Jerry Lai/Reuters

Contributing Authors

MB Kalinich

Maribeth Kalinich is a racing enthusiast and historian who writes about current racing events, Thoroughbred history and preservation of historic racing sites. Growing up in...

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