'We're In Survival Mode': Economic Impact Of COVID-19 Already Hitting Racing Hard - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

‘We’re In Survival Mode’: Economic Impact Of COVID-19 Already Hitting Racing Hard

Although it feels like months or years since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, it has been just 18 days since the first racetracks announced they would host racing without spectators and just 16 days since the first racing cancellations. Still, barely two weeks into what experts expect will be a prolonged crisis, almost everyone in the racing industry is feeling something between a financial pinch and a sucker punch to their bank accounts.

First came the forced closure of casinos and simulcast facilities, and then a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to limit gatherings – first to 50 people or less, then to 10 people or less, and now, to maintain at least six feet of space between people at all times. Some tracks have been shuttered since March 14.

For trainers with operations of all sizes, that has meant their income stopped in its tracks, and some are already wondering how long they can keep going.

“We're in survival mode,” said Jose R. Gonzalez Jr., New Mexico-based trainer with a string of 30 horses at Sunland Park. “We're all struggling. Everybody's in a panic, and rightfully so.”

Gonzalez said he's already had calls from owners wanting to pull or sell horses as they realize they will have no purse money to offset costs for an undetermined time. He knows of some trainers who have had owners refuse to pay training bills because their horses won't be running. Gonzalez has already had to offer some staff the option to continue working for reduced pay with the hope of preserving their jobs long-term.

“A lot of people depend on my operation,” he said. “There's a lot of families who depend on me — not just my family, but my entire staff. Gallopers, grooms, assistants, farriers, jockeys. With us being shut down, we don't know how we're going to provide for them tomorrow. We don't know how long it's going to last.”

As worried as he is about his own staff, Gonzalez said he's more worried about those with smaller operations. Most outfits charge owners a per-horse day rate to account for feed, bedding, hay, labor, and other costs (although some trainers have said they're lucky to break even on day rates). When the trainer is also the horse's owner, the picture gets pretty bleak.

“We're all obviously dependent on our owners, but there are a lot of operations that are self-training,” he said. “They don't have clients. those are the ones that are hurting the most because they depend on the purses, the races being run so they can get a piece of the pie.”

Gonzalez said his local horsemen's organization is already discussing ideas and plans to help tide over the smaller operations as best they can.

“To get a positive out of this negative it seems we're doing what we've never done before — we're trying to unite and be on the same page,” he said. “That's one thing that everyone I've talked to has said. It's a bad deal for everybody, but we've got to look at something about it in a positive way. We are united. Now, more importantly than ever before, it's essential we unite.”

Then there are the ripple effects. Trainer Ron Moquett, who has been racing at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, said he would normally begin shifting horses up to Keeneland and Churchill Downs at this time of year. Both backstretches currently are closed to incoming shippers. He has Kentucky-based help calling, asking when they can start work. Other employees still in Arkansas had already put down deposits on apartments in Kentucky, and now aren't sure whether they can recoup that money. Hay, feed, and bedding suppliers are calling, expecting to bring supplies into the backstretch for horses who are grounded.

“The main thing is the uncertainty,” said Moquett. “These people have a job now, but they don't know what happens when the Oaklawn meet is over or if we get a [COVID-19] positive. The mental stress that the majority of the backside is under, it's huge.”

The ripples keep widening. Van companies have noticed a dramatic decline in business, because horses suddenly can't ship into the next track or training center on their circuit. Rebecca Maker, who runs a breaking and rehabilitation business in Central Kentucky, said as of last week her string was already down 15 to 20 percent from what she would normally see this time of year. Maker maintains a farm in Versailles and a barn at The Thoroughbred Center where she rests 2-year-olds coming from the auctions or older horses needing a freshener. She also starts a small number of young horses, and gets horses conditioned to rejoin their trainers on the racetrack.

“At both places, nobody's taking any horses out and nobody's bringing any horses in,” she said. “A lot of it depends on what happens with Churchill because a lot of my clients are waiting in limbo in New Orleans.”

Maker had hoped she might see an uptick in business, as trainers may be trying to move horses away from the tracks, some of which have threatened to evict horses and staff. That didn't happen.

“I was kind of expecting an influx but a lot of my trainers are wanting to hold their barns together,” she said. “They don't want to split their horses up and lose their help. Everybody wants to keep together so when they are able to move they can keep their help, swap around some horses, and keep their numbers.”

Maker has already laid off staff, settling in for a long-term freeze. That has meant picking up a lot of work herself, and planning out what she'll do to cut further if the shutdown continues past mid- to late April.

Many independent contractors also rely on the ecosystem of the racetrack. Pony riders in particular derive their income from per-horse fees they charge trainers to escort horses in the morning or afternoon. Marilyn “Fefe” Montavon said it's not uncommon to extend a trainer credit and hope they'll pay up at the end of one meet or the start of the next. She estimates she is owed five figures from people whose own incomes have vanished overnight.

“I can bring mine to my house and save money, but I don't know what some of these other guys are gonna do,” said Kim Martin, who runs a pony business in Northern Kentucky and Ohio. “I wish there was some way we could say that all these horses are gonna get fed, but that's just not true. Some people just aren't going to have the money.”

In the midst of such uncertainty, many are trying to take each day as it comes.

“We're doing what every horse trainer does,” said Moquett. “We're taking the information in front of us and making a decision. The first thing you do is wake up and take care of the horses. After that you figure out what do I have to deal with this morning.”

Moquett said he's doing his best to help diffuse some stress for those around him. Moquett and his family have a text message thread where they issue daily challenges to each other, like a certain number of sit-ups or planks. One of Moquett's challenges was to grow a “quarantine beard” but so far, he hasn't had much luck.

“I never had to shave; I just don't grow very much hair,” he said. “I decided I'd just let my face hair grow as long as the quarantine goes on, because no one ever sees me but from a distance so who cares. That's my little protest. I was kind of hoping I would look like one of the Hemsworth brothers but instead it looks kinda like Cooter [Davenport] on the Dukes of Hazard.”

Besides maintaining his sense of humor, Moquett said he tries to remind everyone – we're all going to get through this. His favorite challenge so far was a list of what everyone is most looking forward to at the end of quarantine.

“I want them to start focusing all that energy positively about something fun on the other side,” he said. “It's very tough right now for people. I'm lucky in that stuff like this doesn't affect me so much. The financial side does, but mentally not so much. A lot of people I know don't have that, so I'm trying to help them.”

Chelsea Hackbarth contributed additional reporting to this story.

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