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North American Horse Racing Continues Taking Hits From Pandemic

James Murphy
by in Horses on
  • Some North American horse racing tracks have continued running without a live audience.
  • Their numbers are dwindling as many tracks run up against government orders to close ‘nonessential’ businesses.
  • Other tracks have been forced to reschedule racing meets and stakes races.

In the early days of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic it appeared that horse racing might be poised to keep running. Since the ‘athletes’ aren’t human they’re not at risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus (or they don’t appear to be) and unlike other North American professional sports their business model doesn’t rely on live spectators. The hope is that by taking some ‘social distancing’ measures for the humans that live and work at the track they race without a live crowd in attendance.

To some extent it has worked and there are at least a few North American tracks set to run a race card on Friday including Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream Park in Florida, Los Alamitos in California and Remington Park in Oklahoma. Nebraska’s Fonner Park and Oklahoma’s Will Rogers Downs are scheduled to run cards on Monday. Unfortunately, these are the ‘last tracks standing’ for the time being and within the past 24 hours several tracks have been forced to close or reconfigure their plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Northern California’s Golden Gate Fields had been scheduled to run on Thursday and Friday as part of their race meet continuing through early June. The track received notification on Thursday morning that the Alameda County Health Department had ordered their closure, at least temporarily. The track made the announcement to horsemen just over an hour before Thursday’s first race was set to go. They released this statement:

“In accordance with instructions received this morning from the Alameda County Public Health Officer, Golden Gate Fields will temporarily close for live racing effective immediately. … Golden Gate Fields is abiding by the instructions issued two weeks ago by the California Horse Racing Board to operate under the sanction of the local health authorities.”

The track also noted that there have been no known cases of COVID-19 at Golden State Fields. The closure is somewhat curious since as is the case with many other track closures it doesn’t apply to the backstretch workers who live at the track. There are 400 workers at the track tending to the 1,200 plus horses in the stable area. With the track closed to a live audience it’s unclear what is being accomplished with the closure since in theory the greatest risk of transmission would be among the backstretch community.

Los Alamitos is now the only track running live racing in California. Santa Anita was shut down last weekend by the Los Angeles County Health Department meaning Saturday’s Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby is postponed indefinitely. On Wednesday, live racing at the Cal Expo Harness Track in Sacramento was shut down. Cal Expo was the last harness track in the US to be running live races meaning the sport is essentially shut down until further notice.


Dallas area thoroughbred track Lone Star Park will delay the start of its meet scheduled to begin on April 16. They had previously announced a postponement in the acceptance of horses on March 20 meaning that the backstretch stable area will not open until at least May 3 at which point the situation will be re-evaluated. Track President Scott Wells said that the track intends to run a full race schedule at a time ‘yet to be determined’:

“We have every intention of running the best Thoroughbred season we’ve had since 2004. That was the Breeders’ Cup year. We, like everyone else in the business, have to respect the parameters set by governmental authorities in managing our reactions to this pandemic. We will open the Lone Star stable area as soon as we can and begin racing on a schedule yet to be determined – all of which is pending further details as put forth by the authorities.”


The Queen’s Plate is Canada’s most prestigious thoroughbred event and the oldest continually run race in North America. Woodbine Entertainment announced that they would be postponing the start of their 2020 meet which was scheduled to begin on April 18. The Queen’s Plate was originally scheduled for June 27 but the decision was made due to the postponement of feeder races for the event. Here’s how Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson explained the postponement:

“The Queen’s Plate is the oldest continuously run race in North America, and we have every intention of keeping it that way. Once we postponed the start of our season, it likely meant that the Queen’s Plate would also be postponed as certain races are required leading up to it so the 3-year-old horses competing are ready for the longer distance. As soon as we receive clarity on when the season will start, we will create a new stakes schedule and finalize a new date for The Queen’s Plate.”

The start date for the Woodbine thoroughbred meet and the postponed Queen’s Plate are currently ‘TBA’. Earlier in the month, the company announced the suspension of harness racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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