Virus doesn’t deter horse racing at US tracks, but few fans

Ron Tenski, Jerry Moritz

Ron Tenski and Jerry Moritz, left, who had arrived to Fonner Park in Grand Island, Neb., for the horse races, Saturday, March 14, 2020, leave after the races were called off due to dangerous track conditions following snowfall. Fonner was one of the few sporting venues in the country open to fans Saturday, and Moritz wasn’t going to let concerns over the new coronavirus stop him from going to the track. “If we had a dozen people in the hospital here and two or three died, then I would probably back off,” he said. “I feel like some people probably got it and don’t even know it and are already over it.” (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

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Drayden Van Dyke hopped off Charlatan after winning the sixth race by 10 1/4 lengths at Santa Anita on Saturday and celebrated by trading elbow taps in the winner’s circle. No traditional post-race handshakes during the coronavirus pandemic.

The jockey, like all riders at the Southern California track where no fans were in attendance, had already had his temperature taken. The jockeys’ room has “hand sanitizer everywhere you look,” Van Dyke said.

Bugler Jay Cohen blew his horn to an empty grandstand, with only trainers, jockeys and those working directly with the horses on hand to hear.

“It’s a little strange looking up there and not seeing anybody,” Cohen said before playing the traditional “Call to the Post” that greets runners as they hit the track.

The usual scent of hand-carved sandwiches — turkey, corned beef and prime rib — wasn’t wafting through the air. The food stands were shut down. There was no one manning the admission gates, selling programs and Daily Racing Forms or operating the elevators or gift shop, and no mutual clerks to sell and cash tickets.

Without fans yelling for their favorites, the sounds of jockeys chirping to their mounts and horses’ hooves pounding the dirt track as they flew toward the finish line were easily heard.

“It’s really scary what’s going on right now,” Van Dyke said. “I hope they get it under control.”

Even without fans around, workers could be seen cleaning various public areas of Santa Anita to defend against the coronavirus, which left horse racing as one of the few sports still going on in the U.S.

“It’s just weird what’s going on in the world,” Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said. “I never realized we’re so vulnerable. This is scary times.”

Still, it was a good day for the two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer. He watched from afar as Nadal won the $1 million Rebel Stakes — a major Kentucky Derby prep — by 1 1/2 lengths at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

“That was a pretty impressive performance. He just laid it down,” Baffert said.

A short time later, Charlatan led all the way and blew away four rivals in the $57,000 allowance race for 3-year-olds.

Nadal, Charlatan and Authentic give Baffert yet another loaded hand for the Kentucky Derby, which is scheduled to be run May 2. Churchill Downs officials have yet to say whether the opening leg of the Triple Crown will go on or be postponed.

“They’re three pretty wicked ombres,” Baffert said. “It’s a good spot to be in.”

Charlatan was purchased for $700,000 and is 2-0 in his young career. Sent off as the heavy 1-5 favorite, he ran 1 mile in 1:36.24 and paid $2.60 to win.

“Unfortunately, there’s nobody here to cheer your horses on,” Baffert said. “I feel like we’re running trial races or something.”

Baffert canceled plans to attend a horse sale in Florida because of the virus. He recently returned from races in Saudi Arabia, where he kept his distance from people and constantly wiped down surfaces.

“I have allergies, so I always touch my eyes,” he said. “I think I’m going to put Tabasco sauce on my fingers just to remind myself not to touch.”

At Turfway Park in Kentucky, Field Pass ran down Invader to win the $250,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks in the day’s other Derby prep.

Fonner Park in Grand Island, Nebraska, was one of the few sporting venues in the country open to fans Saturday, and 73-year-old Jerry Moritz wasn’t going to let concerns over coronavirus stop him from going.

“If we had a dozen people in the hospital here and two or three died, then I would probably back off,” said Moritz, who has been attending races regularly since 1970 and almost every day in recent years. “I feel like some people probably got it and don’t even know it and are already over it.”

No cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Hall County, where Fonner Park is located, and that was part of the reason track CEO Chris Kotulak decided to allow fans for the weekend racing programs. He said he would have no problem with closing the races to spectators if advised to do so by health officials.

Kotulak said the clubhouse and other viewing areas are being cleaned with increased frequency. Leaflets reminding employees and guests to practice good hygiene were distributed. As an added precaution, Kotulak visited the jockeys’ room Saturday morning to make sure none of the riders was experiencing any symptoms associated with the virus.

Later, jockeys voted not to race because of dangerous track conditions caused by a snowstorm that moved through the area. After it was announced that racing was canceled, about 50 people stayed at Fonner Park to wager on races simulcast from other tracks.

Joe Brown, who was sitting a table in the enclosed grandstand doing some handicapping with a friend, said he wasn’t overly concerned about getting sick even though he’s 63 and has underlying health issues.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the virus.

“I’m that part of the population that wants to worry about it,” Brown said. “But I kind of figured I haven’t heard of anything around Grand Island yet, so maybe now will be the last time we get out in a group like this and have some fun.”

Ron Tenski, who came to the track with Moritz, said his wife encouraged him to enjoy a day at the races, and he also got the green light from his doctor.

“I had my physical yesterday,” said Tenski, 68, of Grand Island, “and he said don’t be afraid to be out and about.”

Laurel Park in Maryland was business as usual in the paddock and on the track, and announcer Dave Rodman’s calls echoed off the empty building.

Jockey Forest Boyce, who won the day’s second race, said she didn’t notice horses handling the situation any differently. She was able to keep her focus as a rider.

“It’s a little eerie,” Boyce said. “But luckily we’re all out here doing our job and keeping the economy going.”

Instead of the roar of fans, individual owners and trainers could be heard yelling for their horses while races were underway. Trainer Lacey Gaudet slammed the rail in joy after jockey Alex Cintron rode Jefazo to a victory.

“It’s very weird not having fans out here,” Gaudet said. “I think it’s going to be a learning curve, I guess. I don’t really know. It’s the first time that we’ve really had to deal with this.”

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Olson reported from Grand Island, Nebraska and Harris reported from Arcadia, California. AP Sports Writer Stephen Whyno in Laurel, Maryland, contributed to this report.

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