Aqueduct Racetrack was an oasis of sorts for fans of horse racing in the tri-state area — for about a week.
Then the COVID-19 virus that has turned the sports world upside down — as a tiny subset of the upheaval facing the world during this pandemic — got to that track, too.
So on Thursday, March 19, racing at Aqueduct was shut down after a backstretch worker at its sister site Belmont Park tested positive for the virus.
The employee received a test six days earlier due to his newfound health issues, and he did not go to work at Aqueduct while he waited for his positive test result.
“This individual and his roommate have been in isolation since prior to racing last Friday and as such did not travel to Aqueduct for live racing,” said New York Racing Association CEO Dave O’Rourke. “We are working with the county and state departments of health to ensure proper quarantine and sterilization practices will continue to be followed moving forward.
“We are focused on ensuring the health and safety of our entire backstretch community, as well as the horses in their care. Accordingly, we are immediately suspending racing operations until further notice to devote all our attention and resources to this effort.”
All roads led to Aqueduct
Aqueduct was racing Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and once the Meadowlands Racetrack, Freehold Raceway, and Yonkers Raceway shut down earlier this month, money flocked to Aqueduct.
Handle cleared $6 million on one particular day — about double what the fabled Meadowlands was getting on a good night this year. For that final weekend of March 13-15, the handle was $17 million.
The Belmont Park backstretch and its facilities will remain open to horsemen and will be operational for training, but owners are not permitted access to the backstretch until further notice.
NYRA officials said the group is bringing in multiple outside cleaning vendors, to comply with the best practices outlined by the New York State Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Preparedness and Response Plan Committee, a joint network of the NYRA, New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, the Backstretch Employee Service Team, and the New York Race Track Chaplaincy of America, has been following the progress of the pandemic all month.
“At this point in the COVID-19 crisis, we all need to be 100 percent focused on the health of our staff and the welfare of our horses,” said NYTHA President Joe Appelbaum. “When the industry comes out the other side of this — and we will — having as many healthy horses and humans as possible will be paramount.”
The Aqueduct meet was scheduled to conclude on April 19, with the highlight being the Grade 2, $750,000 Wood Memorial on April 4. That was was to be a tuneup for the Kentucky Derby, which has now been postponed from May to September. The Wood seems all but certain to face a delay of months as well.
What’s next in Northeast horse racing?
The NYRA’s thoroughbred season was slated to shift to Belmont Park from April 24-July 12, but the issue with the backstretch worker there may make that opening day problematic as well.
Monmouth Park’s thoroughbred season was to open on May 2, but opening day has tentatively — and perhaps optimistically — been pushed back to May 23.
Parx Racing and Harrah’s Philadelphia are in COVID-19 shutdown from racing, as are all of the tracks in Maryland.
In Delaware, Harrington Raceway is scheduled to kick off its harness racing on April 13 and race Monday-Wednesday, but that schedule also is in jeopardy. Delaware Park’s schedule isn’t to begin until May 27.
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