Hightstown, NJ — Post Time with Mike and Mike presented by the USTA devoted much of its show Thursday (March 26) to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on harness racing. U.S. Trotting Association Executive Vice President and CEO Mike Tanner, Pennsylvania Harness Horsemen’s Association President Sam Beegle, and DRF Harness Editor Derick Giwner were guests on the show, hosted this week by Mike Bozich.
Following are excerpted comments, edited for length and clarity, from Tanner and Beegle.
On how the USTA is operating: Virtually all our staff is working from home and has been for almost two weeks. We’ve had an emergency plan in place for a couple of years and we’ve never really had to use it … but we’ve been fully capable of working away from the office and delivering service at our normal levels. I’m proud of the staff for that.
We have five people in the office and they’re on opposite sides of the building and not really interacting with each other. We’ve got a couple of people in finance because invoices need to be processed and bills need to be paid. We have one person who is taking deliveries and operating the mailroom. My administrative assistant is kind of quarterbacking electronic interactions between staff and myself and directors. And we have one member of IT and/or one member of Member Services operating downstairs. But we are following all the protocols recommended by the state of Ohio and by our other leaders.
The only silver lining out of this is that the plan that we put together is working beautifully. I just hope it doesn’t have to work beautifully for much longer.
On what members should know: The first thing, as the hashtag we put out indicates, is we are all in this together. The racing industry is so interconnected and we’re all going to have to make sacrifices and pull back in certain areas, and the USTA is no different. I have a virtual meeting today with our CFO and COO as we refine the budget that will go before the Finance Committee next week. We had to cancel our in-person meeting, so we’re operating without a budget right now. Clearly, things have changed and our assumptions and our estimates going forward have changed, and we’re going to have to adjust to that.
The second thing I would want everybody to know is that service delivery will continue uninterrupted. Although there is only one track (Cal Expo) actively racing right now, there is still a lot of business going on in the industry and we’re central to that and we’re there for our members. We also see ourselves as kind of a fount of information in terms of best practices, keeping people updated regarding track closures, track openings hopefully, how individuals can best protect themselves from this, and we want people to be engaged with the sport of harness racing. One of the fears in any business is when you essentially shut down, when you reopen are all your customers going to be there, are all your participants going to be there? We will be doing all we can to ensure that they are.
On what can be learned from this situation: That’s tough to say because the crisis is not of our own making, it’s something that comes from entirely outside the industry. We can talk about overarching themes about not taking things for granted and saving something for a rainy day, and things like that, but I think this is an exercise in trying to deal with things that are uncontrollable.
Here’s one thing that I think is controllable and is within our grasp, and it’s kind of been pushed off to the back pages ever since the coronavirus exploded, and those are the recent federal indictments of several leading trainers in harness racing, to mention nothing of the Thoroughbred side. That’s something that’s within our own house and we do need to clean up.
We’ve continued to get phone calls from people with tips, if you will, and we have passed on that information plus some other things we were able to dig up on to the investigators. The federal investigators are still in touch with us. I don’t think the situation is necessarily over. I think anybody with knowledge of things going on in the game that are not on the up and up and not on the level should reach out, whether that’s to us or whether directly to the investigators, the FBI, the racing commissions, whoever. If you see something, say something. Don’t expect that this has gone away simply because our concerns are great at this point leaning toward our own physical safety. That’s another thing that we internally have had a lot of conversations about and we need to address when we come out of this, and try to work on even when we’re in it, because the game will not thrive, and it will be threatened, if there are those within it who would cheat the game and who would mistreat horses.
Let me stress, everything so far is alleged. I understand that. You’re going to hear that word a lot, alleged. But if this isn’t a wake-up call for those of us in the industry to do something, and I mean everybody, not just the USTA, not just racetracks, not just the racing commissions, I don’t know what is.
On the role of the PHHA in assisting horse people: We understand this is a very difficult time, especially because no one knows exactly how long this will last. The first thing we did is that the races that were canceled at (The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono) that were programmed, we paid out a part of those purses to all programmed owners, trainers, and drivers. Most recently, we alerted all our members who are on the PHHA health insurance program that their premium for April will not be billed.
The staff has moved to working more remotely but can still be reached as usual. They are monitoring all state and federal legislation to see how it can be a benefit to all horsemen. We are in constant communication with commission and track leaders to make sure we can all stay on the same page.
On precautions the PHHA is recommending to members: I think everyone needs to listen to what the government and health officials are saying. Social distancing seems to be the way to go. Also, wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze, and if you feel sick stay at home. The main thing is to stay safe and follow the health recommendations. Even if you don’t agree with them, you need to follow them.
On how the situation has affected his stable: I’m an optimistic person by nature. I don’t think I would be in the horse game if I wasn’t. I’m training my 2-year-olds just like I would train them normally. They’re not going to race until the 10th or 15th of June anyway, so I’m on schedule to be where I should be. My 3-year-olds, I’ve slowed down with them a little bit, but I haven’t backed up. As we come near to some of these (race) dates, I’m sure the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission and the sire stakes and stuff will look at this and if we need to move it back, we’ll move it back. We’re going to do what makes common sense.
To listen to the entire Post Time with Mike and Mike podcast, which includes additional topics as well as discussion with Giwner on handicapping the cards at Cal Expo, click here.