Laurel Park To Resume Live Racing May 30

The following appeared in May 28 and was written by Meredith Daugherty. 

In a May 28 meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission, members unanimously approved the decision to open Laurel Park to resume live racing beginning May 30. Simulcast, intertrack, and common pool wagering are approved to begin as early as May 29.

The Laurel Park summer meet will encompass 28 days of racing starting May 30 and ending Aug. 22. Racing will be held on a Friday and Saturday basis without the presence of spectators. Any changes to the decision to open the grounds to fans is dependent upon a change in the state’s executive order from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

“We respectfully submitted, with approval by the horsemen, those dates based on the funds we have available for the purses in the purse account with the lack of casino wagering,” said Sal Sinatra, president of the Maryland Jockey Club. “For the time being, during this pandemic, the backstretch has been operating under very stiff protocols. I thank the horsemen and riders and everyone taking care of those animals. We respectfully request that we have those dates to attempt to do what our neighbors have been doing—running fan free.”

Racing was last conducted at the MJC March 15.

On March 12, Gov. Hogan issued an executive order prohibiting the gathering of more than 250 people in a public space. At the time, Laurel Park was conducting live racing without the presence of spectators. The track continued to run horses through March 15, when the governor issued a follow-up order to close the tracks to the public for public wagering.

Alan Rifkin, attorney for The Stronach Group and Maryland Jockey Club, said that because the executive order did not expressly prohibit racing, it is possible to resume under the condition that strict safety protocols are put in place.

“As the commission is aware, on March the 12, the governor issued an executive order to prohibit gatherings of more than 250 people,” said Rifkin. “Live racing, however, was proceeding at that time without fans and we conducted racing from March 13-15. Then another executive order was issued to close the tracks to the public for public wagering. I emphasize that point because at no point has live racing been ordered to be closed.

“As a point of fact, the Maryland Jockey Club closed racing voluntarily and did so after the (March) 15th. During that time, when the Maryland Jockey Club ceased racing, we took that opportunity to work with horsemen, with breeders, and with medical colleagues to develop protocols for a safe and appropriate way to conduct racing should racing be reopened. We’re very pleased with those protocols and we think they incorporate not only best practices, but also reflect that throughout the country, live racing is proceeding at various Stronach Group tracks.”

The Stronach Group’s Santa Anita Park in Southern California was approved to resume racing without spectators May 16. Santa Anita had been closed since the health department ordered a cessation of racing March 27. In contrast, Gulfstream Park has remained open throughout the COVID-19 lockdown albeit subject to revised health and safety protocols.

“We’ve learned from our experience and incorporated much of what we have learned within the protocols we put before you,” Rifkin told the commission. “We would ask (to resume racing) in light of the fact that the executive orders, from our read of them, have never precluded live racing and we have voluntarily stood down. But it is now time to move forward without fans on the dates we have requested.

“I would point out, as I have in the past, that racing is a unique ecosystem. It is different than other gaming and sporting activities. There is no ball that passes between athletes in conflict. There is no need for—although we always want—public attendance at the facility. We’ve said many times before that racing and training are very similar enterprises. Training has continued uninterrupted during the pandemic and done so safely. The only real distinction between training and racing is the existence of the oversight of the commission and a starting gate. We have made this point many times that as an outdoor activity the transition back to live racing from training is not a large leap, it’s a natural progression.”

In response to the proposal, commission member Ernie Greco asked for clarification regarding the decision to race only on Fridays and Saturdays. Although the track has had extended race dates during the week in years past, Rifkin reiterated that the decision to keep the casinos of the state closed has impacted purse coffers.

“We take this in small steps,” said Rifkin. “Because the casinos are still closed at the moment, the purse account has to be considered in determining the number of race days and when. I think we’re at a little bit of a new universe at the moment. We want to take it slowly at first to see what we have and how to best proceed. I think the industry is well-positioned going forward to take the appropriate steps and do whatever is necessary to proceed safely and soundly both within its financial resources and its health responsibilities.”

Commission member Thomas Bowman asked Rifkin for further clarification on the proposed racing dates. Bowman put forth the notion that if following the governor’s order was a matter of compliance and not legality, the decision to resume racing on May 30 seemed arbitrary.

“We took into consideration a variety of different factors,” explained Rifkin. “We’ve always believed that our first priority is to the safety and health of the industry, the horses, and to those who participate in every aspect of it. We, like the governor, were looking to see a downward turn in the virus throughout the state before we made the overture to you as the commission and regulatory body. We, like the governor and administration, have been watching these numbers very carefully and we wanted to make sure when we requested these dates from you that we could stand on the same kind of firm foundation that the administration is standing on in opening up during Phase 1 and Phase 2. I think what you’re seeing is that our calculus and assessment is paralleling that which was made by the administration.”

The Maryland Jockey Club has issued the following protocols for horsemen when they access Laurel Park through the Horsemen’s Gate during live racing. The protocols are effective Saturday when live racing resumes:
Everyone entering through the Horsemen’s Gate must have a face covering and their Maryland Racing Commission badge. There are no exceptions.

Everyone will have their temperature checked as the enter.

The trainer or their representative responsible for saddling the horse will be the only person allowed through the Horsemen’s Gate for their specific race. Once the race is finished, they must leave immediately through the Horsemen’s Gate.

A racing official will be stationed at the Horsemen’s Gate to collect papers, coggins, colors, checks for the bookkeeper, or anything else that needs to go to the Racing Office.

The claims box will be with the racing official at the Horsemen’s Gate, where a claim must still be dropped 10 minutes to post. No one will be allowed past the gate to observe the horses in the paddock.

Any money that needs to get to the Horsemen’s Bookkeeper must either be wired (instructions are on the Laurel Park website) or be in the form of an official bank check made out to the Maryland Thoroughbred Purse Account and given to the racing official at the Horsemen’s Gate.

Please call the Racing Office if you are in need of papers or colors or anything else so we may get it out to the racing official at the Horsemen’s Gate.

No family members, guests, owners, or jockey agents will be allowed through the Horsemen’s Gate.

All grooms must have a MRC badge and face coverings once they leave the receiving barn or their respective barns to head to the paddock for their race.

As of May 28, a total of 49,709 cases of COVID-19 had been reported by the Maryland Department of Health. The number of virus-related deaths has reached 2,428.