Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 29, 2020

While Most Sports Stop, The Horses Still Run

The NBA and NHL seasons are suspended, the standings in both leagues frozen with teams still fifteen to twenty games short of completing a full schedule. Baseball’s scheduled Opening Day has come and gone, but stadiums are silent. March Madness has taken on a new and very different meaning, with the NCAA basketball tournaments, and for that matter all college sports, cancelled. Both the PGA Tour and the LPGA are on hiatus, with the first two men’s majors and the first of the women’s five career-defining tournaments postponed. The Summer Olympics, scheduled to begin in Tokyo in late July, have been moved to 2021, the IOC bowing to the reality that even if the COVID-19 pandemic subsides by summer it would be impossible to stage all the qualifying events in countries around the world and for athletes to properly train. Like so many other aspects of our lives, sports have ground to a halt. But late Saturday afternoon at Gulfstream Park, just north of Miami, a field of nine broke from the gate in the Florida Derby, just as scheduled.

The Kentucky Derby, the first horse race that most casual fans take note of every year, has been moved from its traditional date on the first Saturday in May to Labor Day weekend. While no official announcements have been made about the scheduling of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, NBC, which broadcasts the Triple Crown, is said to be in discussions with organizers of those two races to move them as well. But if the sport’s premier races have joined the long list of sporting events disrupted by the pandemic, at tracks all around the country thoroughbred racing continues, albeit before empty grandstands.

To be fair, horse racing is not quite the sole sport still active. Aspiring pro golfers are still playing on a handful of mini-tours – the Cactus Tour for women and the Outlaw Tour for men, both in Arizona, and the aptly named Minor League Tour in Florida – and in the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, the national soccer league is continuing with its schedule. But the entire field at a mini-tour event might number two dozen players, and golf is the rare sport that easily lends itself to social distancing, so much so that in some states public courses remain open for play. As for Belarus, dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship” by many journalists, the country’s authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has prescribed drinking vodka and visiting saunas as sure-fire cures for Coronavirus.

In contrast thoroughbred racing is, at least in theory, a tightly regulated industry, and this is certainly a time when state and local governments are, with good reason, dictating much of our day to day existence. But a fan could tune into the NBC Sports Network on Saturday afternoon and watch live racing from tracks across the country leading up to the headline event from Gulfstream Park, a fact that speaks volumes about the nature of that regulation. There were races not just from Florida, but from Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and from Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley, just across the Bay from San Francisco, one of the first U.S. cities to declare a state of emergency because of COVID-19.

The stands were empty at all the tracks, though the too obvious joke suggests there’s nothing unusual about that. But while outriders were wearing masks, for the most part jockeys were not, and there was plenty of inevitable close contact between riders during the races. Of course, there was virtually no mention of the extraordinary circumstances by the TV commentators, who were the regular voices of the TVG Network rather than an NBC crew. TVG is an online betting and cable television network dedicated to horse and greyhound racing. It’s part of the occasional cable package but is more often seen at betting parlors because it moves quickly from race to race around the country, providing off track bettors constant coverage and live results. With no other live events to broadcast, NBC was happy to piggyback on TVG’s regular coverage, although the big network reportedly asked that commentary be simplified for viewers not familiar with the sport or betting on horses.

That request provides valuable insight into why racing continues. Sports betting is a huge industry, one that has moved rapidly from the shadows into the mainstream in recent years through a combination of the popularity of fantasy sports and court decisions freeing states to allow wagering on sporting events. And while it remains on the fringe of most sports fans’ focus, horse racing is still a multi-billion dollar business that contributes many millions of dollars to state treasuries suddenly strapped for cash as other, more significant tax revenues wither along with the businesses that pay them. The two factors together make for powerful incentives to keep the horses running and the wagering dollars flowing, especially at a time when other gambling outlets are shuttered.

So the Florida Derby went off as scheduled Saturday, with nine horses breaking from Gulfstream Park’s gate for the mile and an-eighth journey that has long served as an important prep race for the Triple Crown. Independence Hall at 7-2, and Gouveneur Morris at 9-2, both had decent backing, but most of the money was on the two favorites, Tiz the Law and Ete Indien. The former had won the Holy Bull at the beginning of February in impressive fashion, while the latter had rebounded from a second place showing in that race to claim the Fountain of Youth four weeks later, though against a lesser field. With the pair matched up again the question was whether Ete Indien could show he was in the same league as Tiz the Law.

In less than two minutes the answer was obvious. Ete Indien led early, as is his style, but Tiz the Law was perfectly positioned on his outside flank down the back stretch. Going into the far turn Tiz the Law moved up and was in the lead by the time the field turned for home. Ete Indien faded in the stretch, finishing third behind Shivaree and just ahead of Gouverneur Morris while Tiz the Law galloped home three lengths clear and became an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, whenever it may be run. With a little luck all the parties involved, both equine and human, came away healthy. But then horse racing has always been about luck.


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