They were looking for exposure.
As in trying to draw new fans to their sport, not open the door to COVID-19.
And while the former showed promise at Miami Valley Raceway over the past eight days, the latter became too much of a threat in their harness racing world.
While the coronavirus has dramatically changed daily life in our nation and sent sports to the bench to sit this one out, horse racing – both harness and thoroughbred – has tried to keep running with its action geared mostly to bettors playing online while isolated at home.
But the sport couldn’t outrun the sobering, deadly reality of the growing pandemic.
Two harness horsemen on the East Coast – John Brennan, the former United States Trotting Association director, and Carmine Fusco, a veteran trainer from New Jersey – died from COVID-19.
Fusco’s story has become one of the saddest in the viral siege.
Within seven days, he, his brother, his sister and his mother all have died from the coronavirus. Three more siblings are hospitalized, two on life support. Twenty other family members – including grandchildren – are quarantined.
Some of the drivers and race officials knew either Fusco or Brennan and have heard about what has happened since their deaths.
According to Harnessracing.com, Jason Bartlett, the leading driver at Yonkers where Brennan was a regular, was under self-quarantine and Joe Faraldo, the president of the Standardbred Owners Association, for which the 69-year-old Brennan was now a field rep, isolated himself, as well.
In the thoroughbred world, top Oaklawn Park trainer Tom Amoss self-quarantined himself after he spent time with New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton last weekend.
Payton tested positive for COVID 19 on Thursday. Five days earlier he had been at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., for the running of the Rebel Stakes and had presented a trophy in the Winner’s Circle when Amoss’s Serengeti Empress had won the Azeri Stakes on the same card.
Also in the thoroughbred world, two jockeys at Gulfstream Park – Irad Ortiz and Rajiv Maragh – announced Friday they no longer will ride during the COVID 19 outbreak.
And at Belmont Park, a groom who lives on the track’s backside — along with 600 other people — tested positive, a situation that, coupled with Brennan’s death and other incidents, helped lead New York officials to cancel all racing operations for the time being.
That’s part of the backdrop in which Miami Valley Raceway was trying to operate and the racino just a few miles west of Lebanon along I-75 was going to great lengths to keep the drivers, trainers, grooms and track officials safe during the process.
Beginning March 14, the racetrack and casino were closed to the public. People could watch the races and wager online and with the rest of the sports world silenced, race officials saw it as an opportunity to not only keep their horsemen working, but to market their product to an untapped populace.
“We felt we were introducing the sport to newcomers who were at home and bored,” said Gregg Keidel, the Miami Valley race secretary. “All they had to do was find an ADW (Advance-Deposit Wagering) platform, sign up and put down a deposit. Then they could watch from the comfort of their home whether they bet or not.”
Since Miami Valley is partly owned by Churchill Downs, the track encouraged people to sign up to its wagering app called TwinSpires.
Around the racing world, TVG broadcasts races from 150 tracks around the world and last weekend it saw a 75 percent increase in wagering from the same Friday and Saturday in 2019.
Keidel said the handle at Miami Valley was up a couple of days once the new parameters had been set, but then trailed off on two other race cards.
With health and social concerns eclipsing any financial considerations – and finding it impossible to adhere to an Ohio race commission ruling that said only 50 people could be in the paddock (barn area) at a time – Miami Valley decided to cancel racing Friday and Saturday of this weekend.
Then Friday afternoon the Commission issued a cease operations order for at least a week – and maybe longer – for Miami Valley and the other two Ohio tracks in operation: Northfield, which is also a harness track and Mahoning Valley, which runs thoroughbreds in Youngstown.
That’s not to say the whole racing world has gone dark, especially thoroughbreds.
Saturday, the $1 million Louisiana Downs was to be run at the Fair Grounds track in New Orleans.
And Oaklawn and Santa Anita in California were set to run big cards on Saturday and Sunday. Cal Expo in Sacramento planned a harness racing card with no fans Saturday evening.
But the threat of what was out there hit some people here, including Washington Court House driver Jeremy Smith – who was the Hollywood Dayton Raceway driving champ in 2018 and is one of the sulky leaders at this Miami Valley meet – 12 days ago when Brennan became the first COVID 19 death in New Jersey:
“The first thing I thought of when I heard about him was: ‘This could be bad, man!’ Like everybody else, we were still running full tilt and nothing was precautionary then. It kind of opened your eyes. “
Brady Galliers, a promising 24-year-old trainer and driver who now lives in Groveport, knew Carmine Fusco and his family. Last year he had trained some horses for them:
“As much as some people might want to say otherwise, this threat is the real deal. Day by day, the cases are going up and people are dying. So I can’t disagree with temporarily shutting down now.”
Veteran Lebanon driver and trainer Kayne Kauffman understands, as well: “We kind of knew this was coming. We were just delaying the inevitable.”
While Keidel said the track had “bent over backward “ trying to find a way to “keep going for the horsemen’s sake,” he said it was impossible with the ever-growing restrictions coming from the state and the changing public perception:
”We didn’t want to continue racing in the face of society’s view of the current pandemic.”
‘It’s all over the world’
Miami Valley began instituting its most noticeable safety measures a week ago Saturday when it prohibited the public from coming to the track.
Keidel said medical personnel have assured them horses don’t contract COVID 19 or pass it on, but the threat of people giving it to each other led to several precautionary measures.
The paddock is larger than a football field and the six huge overhead doors on the barn were kept wide open. Hand sanitizer stations were added throughout the facility and the overhead TVs were turned off, forcing horsemen to go outside to watch the races being run.
Drivers said they saw no one wearing masks over the past week, but most people practiced social distancing and drivers tried to stand outside or in the door opening when they weren’t racing.
The track had been limiting the number of people who could accompany a horse to the barn and then came the directive from the state commission in that no more than 50 people could be in the barn at one time.
With 14 races on the cards — which run Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday through Tuesday afternoons — that was impossible to accomplish, Keidel said, especially since 12 of those 50 are people mandated by the state to be there as inspectors, security, etc.
Keidel said that while, “we felt we weren’t endangering people to any degree,” two drivers did got nervous about the situation in the past week and each missed one day of racing.
“That was understandable and there was no problem or penalty,” he said.
Several drivers I talked to admitted at one time or another during the week they felt a little uneasy.
“Everybody in the paddock was a little on edge, I guess,” Kauffman said.
Dan Noble, the Xenia-based driver and trainer, agreed: “Some people seemed a little on edge.”
While he said he tried to just go about his routine, Smith said: “To be honest, it was in the back of my mind.”
“I kind of held my breath,” said Galliers. “I was a little worried, but I don’t think there’s anybody that’s not worried. It’s in our business and our everyday life. It’s all over the world.”
Even so, winners of each race still went to the winner’s circle so track photographer Brad Conrad could snap one of his traditional photos.
But unlike other times when the finish line winners are quickly joined by a trainer, a groom, some owners or whomever can join in the festivities, these shots contained just the horse and his driver.
“When these restrictions started, they thought of not even having the winner’s circle photos, that they’d only have a shot of the horse crossing the finish line,” Conrad said. “I thought it looked better – now that we were the only game in town – to still have the traditional photo.”
But unlike the past shots, you see no fans on the fence in the background, nor in the grandstand. And the drivers – at least in the case of the two photos I saw – seemed to have a little tighter smile than usual.
‘It’s just a terrible situation’
Keidel knew both John Brennan and Carmine Fusco, though not well.
Smith said he had talked to Fusco in the past: “He called me a couple of time about horses I had driven that he was thinking of purchasing.”
Galliers said when he got some horses to train from Fusco, he got to know a little about his family: “He was a very good guy with a good family. They were close and would get together every week or so.”
It was during a family get-together, medical officials think, that the virus spread to everyone.
Carmine’s sister, Rita Fusco-Jackson, died March 13. He and his mother died Thursday and his brother Vincent died Friday.
“It’s just a terrible situation,” Galliers said.
Carmine — who had 2,531 career victories as a trainer — had just run two horses 13 days ago at Pocono Downs. He also frequented Yonkers Raceway, where Brennan had been at the track every night. “Carmine definitely would have had some interaction with John Brennan in the past month,” Keidel said.
With the comings and goings of the harness world, it seemed almost miraculous then when he said: “But nobody in the Ohio harness racing community, to my knowledge, has tested positive.”
And that, as Galliers said, is why so many people are holding their breath.
Stipends for horsemen?
Smith admitted it had been “a double-edged sword” when it came to racing or shutting down.
“I love what I’m doing and I know racing is the way we take of our families, but at the same time with everybody being around and with all I’m hearing, I worry about myself and my buddies out there.”
Many racing stables, like restaurants, won’t be able to withstand a long work stoppage, several horsemen said.
“A lot of us are worried,” Noble said. “If it’s only a month, then we probably can all survive. But if it’s over that, several of us are going to have a very hard time surviving.”
Keidel said the track is pursuing the idea of “stipends” for the horsemen:
“We’re going to open discussion quickly with the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association about ways of subsidizing the horsemen. There is purse money – actually, it’s their money and we’re just the shepherds of it.
“Obviously, the purse account has taken a hit due to the reduction of VLT (casino video terminals) resources, but once that is figured out, we’d like to allocate what’s left to help them get through this.”
In the meantime, trainers are deciding how they need to change their regimens now that horses may not be running as much as they were.
And while the trainers must continue to feed and exercise their horses and do the daily barn work, a guy like Kauffman – who trains and drives – has suddenly found himself with some extra time in what used to be 16 and 18 hour days sometimes.
When we spoke Friday afternoon, he had just woke up from a nap.
“A nap! Can you believe that?” he laughed.
It had been refreshing until he got up. That’s when he stepped back into the nightmare.
“This is strange now,” he said, “and it’s going to be just as strange moving forward.”
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