The impact of COVID-19 on the world of sports has shown no limit to what it can affect.
Horse racing is faced with many of the same issues as major sporting leagues, but industry leaders say the business is also in a unique position to bounce back quicker than other sports.
“We have a big advantage in the sports and entertainment properties because we do not need spectators,” says Woodbine Entertainment Group CEO Jim Lawson. “Since we’re largely driven by our simulcast and our broadcasting features, we have those opportunities available to us, we can operate our sport.”
Since horse racing is not facing questions surrounding gate revenue upon resumption of racing, the business does not have to address the same questions the NHL, NBA and MLB will face upon the resumption of their sports. Horse racing is, instead, looking ahead to a quick launch once governments loosen physical distancing measures.
There were four tracks racing in Ontario, all without spectators, before operations were halted in March. Since then, the racing community has been preparing and anticipating a return in the summer, buoyed by the fact that no one in the Ontario racing community has tested positive for the virus.
“There is not one case of COVID in Ontario,” says John Hayes, Ontario Racing Chair. “The precautions that the industry is taking seem to be working. As we get into May, and if the good news both in the province and in the industry continues, we should be able to get back racing hopefully sometime in June.”
Horse racing will also not require a pre-season or warm-up period as many horses continue to train in isolation. Racehorses could theoretically line up at the post before the first sound of the starting trumpet is even played.
“None of the trainers stopped, they’re training their horses every day,” says Howard Pearce, owner and operator of LandMark Racing Stables. “If they announced harness racing was starting next week, these horses are ready. That’s a big difference from any of the other sports.”
In fact, the readiness of horse racing could prove to be a financially prosperous opportunity. Fonner Park in Grand Island, Neb., is one of approximately six racetracks currently operating in America. Despite the absence of spectators, the racetrack has been taking in record amounts of gambling money.
Fonner Park CEO Chris Kotulak told Sportsnet that “what we wager on a normal Saturday is in the neighbourhood of $300,000. Now we’re handing either side of $3 million, sometimes greater than $3 million.”
Over a near three-week period in April, Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park, Tampa Bay Downs, Fonner Park and Will Rogers Downs have seen a US$150 million-plus (129 per cent) increase in handles from a year ago, according to horseracingnation.com. The Canadian horse racing industry had already seen an uptick in betting handles prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, and are ready to get back to work when appropriate.
“We’d already been racing without spectators and it was going over fairly good,” says horse trainer Mark Steacy, owner and operator of Mark Steacy Stables. “It was the only gambling in town, so the bet was really good, too, and it was working quite well.”
“We can go on without a public. We’re not like hockey or baseball, we don’t need people in the stands.”
When racing does resume in Ontario, and across Canada, Woodbine Entertainment also hopes to be ready with a new app, Dark Horse, which will more easily assist horse racing fans in placing wagers within Canada. A soft launch is planned for May, provided racing resumes by then, with a wider launch targeted for later this year.
Whenever restrictions are lifted, the horse racing industry appears to have a plan to resume its operations.
“Our goal is to resume live racing,” notes Lawson. “I hesitate to say a date, but if we can put a lot of this behind us, maybe we can look forward to racing in June or July.”
The Queen’s Plate and North American Cup, the largest horse racing events in Canada, have been postponed for the near future. However, Lawson has said he expects both to eventually run later in the year.