The Covid-19 pandemic will be over by September 5 By Bernard Kroviak, CDC Gaming Reports June 15, 2020 at 9:17 pm That headline, unfortunately, is far from fact; it’s simply the hope of the over 150,000 horse racing fans who had been planning to watch the 2020 Kentucky Derby live and in person. Traditionally scheduled for the first Saturday in May, the Derby is annually America’s most lavishly attended horse race of the year. This year, the Run for the Roses has been rescheduled for the first Saturday in September due to the coronavirus pandemic – and, unfortunately, it’s not assured that a full crowd of spectators will be allowed into Churchill Downs even then. How will the Derby be seen this year? What will be the effect of that race in general, given current circumstances? Will there be hordes of spectators in the infield or in the enormous Churchill grandstands, or will the Derby be run at an empty track? No one really knows, but scientists are putting the odds of the coronavirus being eradicated – or even fully contained – by then at a lot higher than the 50-1 you got if you bet Giacomo in 2005 or Mine That Bird in 2009. Kentucky Derby Horse racing is certainly not the only sport dealing with this attendance issue. All major sports – NASCAR, the NHL, the NBA, MLB, the English Premier League, you name it – are continuing to struggle to find the right manner in which to share its product with fans. Current plans to do so vary with each sport, city, and state; the NHL is planning a 24-team tournament to be staged in two host cities (likely Las Vegas and Toronto) and played in empty arenas, and the NBA is doing something similar, while NASCAR allowed 1,000 select fans at the Dixie Vodka 400 in Florida this past Sunday, the first race conducted in front of a live audience since before the pandemic began. Some of you might already be aware that some form of horse racing has been going on since the shutdown began in March, largely due to the fact that some states recognized that the horses, which were already on the grounds and running at a few tracks, still needed to be cared for. Food and water, after all, are truly essential. So tracks who were in the middle of their meets, mainly in warm weather places like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Florida, came up with plans to conduct races without spectators in attendance, while implementing protocols to help ensure the health of the jockeys, the other employees necessary to run the races, and, especially, the backside workers who care for the horses on a daily basis. This way, the races could continue, bettors could wager on their races from the many online platforms, and owners could continue to vie for purses. Of course, since purse money is dependent on track income, it was an open question how that would be affected with no spectators allowed. Most realized that the track’s income would be reduced without fans, so everyone agreed that lowering purses was a better alternative than having no purses at all. After several months of operating this way, tracks found that the on-track handle – money bet in person on its races – naturally went down drastically, but that that diminished amount was offset quite a bit by the tremendous increase in the amounts wagered online. Some smaller racetracks saw their online handles reach unprecedented heights; Fonner Park, in Grand Isle, Nebraska, saw its handle increase from $12 million all of last year to $107 million just in the past four months. Much of this increase can be attributed to the fact that, with casinos closed and other sports in limbo, horse racing was one of only a handful of sporting events that people could wager on. People were sheltered in place all across the country, racing was still available to watch on TV, and it seems fair to assume that not every sports bettor was enticed by the prospect of wagering on Belarussian soccer, table tennis, or the weather. With only a handful of tracks currently running, it is hard to know how things will go when the others begin to open. Total betting was down considerably at tracks that continued to operate, but they managed to survive. This is good news for horsemen, especially due to the safety and health protocols that have been developed, many of which have since been copied and enhanced by other tracks. With this new way of conducting racing, most racetracks across the country have either reopened under the no-spectator guidelines or announced plans to do so. With the summer effectively upon us, tracks in New York, California, and Kentucky have begun racing again, albeit without spectators. The question now becomes how horse racing will be affected as other options for wagering once again become available – casinos are in the process of reopening, and people can now semi-readily go out to do other things. Might horse racing see an increase in its fan base due to “shut ins” having watched and enjoyed the horses on TV during the winter pandemic? These are all questions that will be answered in time. Don’t believe for a second that anyone has those answers now. Watching horses run on TV can be exciting, much like watching football or any other televised sport, but any fan will tell you that there is nothing like experiencing it in person. I’ve been a bit sad over the past few months as I watched virtual events take place across the country that, but for the Covid-19 pandemic, would have been conducted traditionally, in person. Individual graduation ceremonies on front porches or in cars were nice alternatives to the real thing, and virtual concerts helped fill the void left by no live events at all. Watching TV programs that feature guests taking part via Zoom has made me think about how different life will be when, and if, we return to normal. For me, horse racing is a part of that normal. But what is normal, anyway? A time when most people didn’t have cell phones? Returning to the good old days, so to speak, before 9/11, when airlines served meals and there were no mandatory TSA checks? How many people want to return to the days before the internet, or cable, or satellite television? For people born in other decades, normal is far from what exists today, but as we grow as a society, we change, and we deal with the changes. I don’t mean to trivialize anything occurring today, of course, but I certainly remember my father and father-in-law, both of whom served in WWII, telling me stories about how things used to be. When they returned from overseas, they accepted societal changes and moved forward with their lives. Heck, they even occasionally went to the racetrack to wager a few dollars and watch these majestic animals run. I suppose what it comes down to is that venerable old saw: change is constant. We all must accept the changes that are coming, be they the result of the virus or the protests, even though things might wind up drastically different from what we’d experienced – and come to think of as “normal” – just a short while ago. Horse racing will find a way to survive, and, with any luck, fans will, sooner or later, once again pack the grandstands and roar as the field runs down the track. I might miss sitting in the infield at the Kentucky Derby this year for the first time in over three decades, but I will deal with it. And I’ll keep hope alive that we, as a society, will wind up healthier, happier, and more equitable when all is said and done.