Washington, PA — Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down harness racing March 16 at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino, veteran trainer Randy Bendis had 25 horses in his stable. That’s down to 23, as Bendis was forced to sell two mares to raise cash to pay his bills and avoid laying off staff.
Now, that number may decline even further as racing venues in states other than Pennsylvania are reopening, forcing Bendis and his owners to consider moving their horses outside the Commonwealth for a chance to earn money. Not only would that reduce income for Pennsylvania horsemen, horsewomen and their supply chains, but a diminished horse population also could make it harder for The Meadows and other Keystone State tracks to assemble full, quality fields when racing does resume.
All harness racing in North America shut down in mid-to-late March and has been dark since. But because trainers, grooms, security personnel and track and facilities maintenance staff still report to work each day to feed and exercise horses, the vast majority of people needed to stage live racing already are on the backside and following stringent CDC safety measures. Live racing would require only a few more people, including state judges and a broadcast production crew, action that would have a negligible impact on public health.
States have begun to realize this and have announced reopening schedules for their racetracks. Ohio venues will resume racing today, while the states of New York, Delaware, Indiana and Minnesota, as well as the Province of Ontario, have announced June reopening dates. (All venues will race without spectators.) If Pennsylvania doesn’t take a similar step soon, Bendis, says, he’ll be forced to ship some of his horses to jurisdictions where they can earn purses to offset ongoing expenses.
“If we don’t get any news here, two of my horses will go to Hoosier Park (Indiana), four to Ohio and two more to Yonkers (New York),” says Bendis, who owns a piece of most of the horses in his stable. “My partners have suggested sending their horses to trainers at jurisdictions that are racing, and I really can’t argue with them.”
Bendis indicates he knows of horsemen who have taken part-time work delivering groceries and driving for Uber to keep some cash coming in. Things haven’t reached that point yet for trainer Sarah Andrews, but she can see a time when they might.
At the start of this week, Andrews’ stable at The Meadows had nine horses. That has changed.
“I sent one to Indiana on Monday,” she says. “My owner has horses in four different states, so there’s no reason not to move them to states where they can race. I can’t hold my owners hostage.”
What really hurts: the Indiana-bound horse is Statham N, a fast-class pacer almost certain to turn a healthy profit this year. If Pennsylvania racing doesn’t reopen soon, Andrews and her staff may not see any of it.
“I’m hoping my owners will send their horses right back here once we start racing,” she says. “If they don’t, my stable will slowly disappear.”
For all of the latest news on the resumption of racing, visit the USTA COVID-19 Resource Center.