COVID-19 updates: NYRA, Churchill Downs and Santa Anita Park

Posted: April 30, 2020

The New York Racing Association April 29 said it intends to hold live racing at Belmont Park—and subsequently Saratoga Race Course—under a no-patrons-permitted model when the opportunity arises.

The statement came after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, during his daily coronavirus (COVID-19) press conference, indicated that a Saratoga meet with its customary crowds is improbable. He did not address a scenario in which only essential personnel are allowed access.

“NYRA joins the entire racing community in applauding Gov. Cuomo’s steady leadership throughout this unprecedented public health crisis,” the statement said. “We recognize that decisions about large-scale events are rightly left to our elected leaders and public health officials. At the same time, horse racing is in a unique position as a sport that can be safely staged without attendees. Earlier this week, Gov. Cuomo encouraged sports entities to consider how they could operate without fans in attendance that would be economically viable while providing much needed entertainment.

“By closing to spectators and reducing employees and support staff to only those who are required under the rules of racing, the running of races would support the small businesses and hourly workers who form the backbone of the sport. NYRA held races at Aqueduct Racetrack safely and securely under these conditions through March 15. Our experience during this period of time, as well as our ability to continue the training operation at Belmont Park throughout the pandemic, informs the strict safety protocols that we currently have in place at Belmont Park and would seek to implement at Saratoga Race Course.

“As such, NYRA is seeking to resume live racing at Belmont Park in the absence of fans and we have prepared operating plans that follow the same model for Saratoga. These plans prioritize the health and safety of employees, horsemen and the backstretch community and include a broad array of risk mitigation strategies developed according to the most updated heath guidance. By closing to the public, layering additional health and safety protocols to our ongoing practices, and reducing the number of employees on-property, NYRA is in a position to provide a small sense of normalcy for fans across the country who can watch on television and online. At the same time, this model will enable NYRA to preserve its ability to serve as the cornerstone of an industry that generates more than 19,000 jobs in New York and $3 billion in annual economic impact.

“This is a delicate balance, and one that must always prioritize health and safety. NYRA has experience finding that balance and we are committed to taking every step possible to keep our communities safe while providing entertainment and contributing to the New York economy as we collectively begin the return to a new normal.”

Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs in Kentucky has reached an agreement with Gov. Andy Beshear to open its stable area and nearby Trackside training center May 11 under strict COVID-19 guidelines, with a decision on a start date for the spring meet to come at a later date.

The stable areas will reopen under a phased, systematic approach. The meet will begin with only essential personnel permitted: authorized racetrack employees and Kentucky Horse Racing Commission license-holders who provide support for a horse stabled at the facility.

When racing returns to Churchill it will be staged at a minimum of four days per week, Thursday through Sunday. A daily post time for the first race has not yet been finalized. A revised stakes schedule and condition book will be issued in the coming days.

Churchill released its “COVID-19 Action Plan,” which can be of use to other racing facilities preparing to open or reopen after being shut down because of the virus outbreak. The plan is as follows:


  • Pre-entry procedures include wearing at minimum a cloth/mask or face covering prior to entering and all times while on the grounds, COVID-19 testing and passing a medical screening which includes a medical questionnaire and temperature reading.
  • All individuals who refuse to comply with the COVID-19 Action Plan or those who do not pass the medical screening will be denied entry onto the premises and asked to self-quarantine per Centers for Disease Control guidelines. A log will be kept for individuals that fail initial medical screening so that track security can ensure current CDC self-quarantine timelines have been met prior to attempted re-entry to site.
  • Each person on the grounds will be given a color-coded wristband which will validate that person has passed that day’s screening. Each day a new color will be used to ensure that all individuals are cleared to be on the grounds.


In accordance with CDC guidelines, all horsemen and racetrack employees will be required to practice safe social distancing procedures. This includes avoiding group gatherings of any size and maintaining a six-foot social distancing protocol for all interactions. Track security will enforce social distancing policies in effect and repeated non-compliance will result in removal from the site.


In addition to screening at the point of entry to the grounds, Churchill Downs will set up a process for daily onsite check-ins to screen individuals residing on the backside. These individuals will be required to report to a designated location on the grounds where they will have their temperature checked and must answer the questions for the medical questionnaire. All trainers must submit a badge list identifying their employees which will be cross-referenced to ensure that all employees are screened daily. Trainers will be advised of any individuals who failed to show up for their daily screening.

At the conclusion of daily screenings, security will also randomly check to make sure horsemen have the current color-coded wristband for each day. Anyone who does not have the correct wristband will be asked to re-screen immediately.


Churchill Downs will make medical staff available to provide more detailed medical evaluations for those individuals who do not pass the screening in an effort to determine if they meet the CDC guidelines for quarantining. Those who are not required to quarantine will be allowed to return to their regular assigned area(s) and will continue to participate in daily medical screenings. Those required to quarantine will be asked to report to their trainer to coordinate the off-site quarantine location in accordance with current CDC guidance.

At the conclusion of their CDC-recommended duration of quarantine, the individual must be re-evaluated by a medical professional. If the individual still exhibits symptoms associated with COVID-19, the medical professional may recommend additional isolation or off site treatment at that time. Conversely, upon successful medical re-screening, the individual will be allowed to return to their regular assigned area(s) and will continue to participate in daily medical screenings.


Personnel are encouraged to increase the frequency of hand-washing by utilizing exterior han- sanitizing stations or by utilizing restrooms/bath houses that are stocked with liquid soap. In addition, sharing of equipment shall be minimized (lead shanks, grooming tools, mucking equipment, etc.). If equipment must be shared among horsemen, it shall be disinfected between uses.


Churchill Downs will ensure that jockeys and staff are adequately spaced out in the jockeys’ room to comply with proper social distancing guidelines. Jockeys shipping in from out of state or are outside of the normal colony will be separated in another room.


Grandstand, frontside and paddock access will be strictly limited to horsemen with horses racing and approved racing officials and track staff. All individuals in these areas will be checked by security personnel to ensure they have the correct color wristband for access or they will be screened if this is their first time on the grounds that day.

Congregating on the apron in large groups will not be allowed. All facilities will remain closed to the general public. There will be no on-site wagering for racing to reduce the likelihood of congregation and to limit touch points on the grounds. Paddock access will be limited to the trainer, assistant trainer, groom and horse only.


Dormitories: To maintain cleanliness within our backside dormitories, track personnel will ensure cleaning of frequently touched surfaces, such as doorknobs, door handles, handrails and tables, as well as non-porous surfaces in bathrooms, and laundry areas using Environmental Protection Agency- and CDC-approved disinfectants. In addition, wastebaskets will be placed in visible locations and emptied regularly.

Restrooms: All restrooms/bath houses are pre-cleaned daily and routinely cleaned during normal operations provided six-foot social distances practices can be maintained. This includes frequent removal of trash and thorough cleaning of all surfaces. All restrooms/bath houses are stocked with liquid soap and all employees and on-site partners are encouraged to frequently wash their hands.


Training has been developed and will be provided to all team members, security and medical personnel on all new procedures and monitoring/reporting requirements. Medical personnel will develop and be trained on procedures to ensure that all suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection are properly communicated, documented and directed to appropriate quarantine facilities.


To limit exposure and prevent the spread of germs and disease the following restrictions shall apply:

  • No fans or media will be allowed at the track;
  • No guests, no exceptions;
  • No congregating in any areas;
  • Official clockers and gap attendants to use their designated space(s) only;
  • Only trainers and horsemen with horses stabled at Churchill Downs and Trackside and others are responsible for the care of the horses (veterinarians, grooms, exercise riders, farriers) are allowed in the stable area;
  • Track kitchen will remain open to serve onsite personnel only via carryout orders;
  • No access wrist bands will be issued to family members or guests of horsemen and racetrack employees; and
  • Individuals under the age of 16 will be prohibited from entering the barn area at any time.

Santa Anita Park

Santa Anita Park sent a letter to the Thoroughbred Owners of California stating it will issue a condition book that targets May 15 for the resumption of live racing under strict protocols, including the exclusion of spectators.

The date coincides with expiration of Los Angeles County’s safer-at-home order and comments by California Gov. Gavin Newsom that statewide COVID-19 restrictions could be relaxed in a few weeks.

The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, has been using a COVID-19 mitigation plan in its barn area and, before being ordered to halt racing in March, was operating with only essential personnel on the grounds.

“As businesses throughout the state are preparing to gradually reopen, horse racing is unique as we cannot literally open the doors the moment orders are relaxed,” Aidan Butler, TSG Executive Director of California Racing Operations, said in the letter. “Horsemen need time to plan, which is why the tentative date is being put forth. It would be derelict of us to not give you as much notice as possible, with your understanding it is still a contingency plan. Additionally, the plan presented to county officials is logistically complex and it will take Santa Anita up to two weeks to resume operations with the guidelines in place.

“To be clear, this resumption would be subject to the stringent restrictions which were included in the plan and protocols currently under consideration by Supervisor Kathryn Barger, Chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and Los Angeles County Health Department officials. It is contingent upon the county’s current stay-at-home order expiring on May 15 and the county meeting their metrics.

“We have presented a plan to race that assures health and safety. The schedule is predicated on conditions continuing to improve in Southern California. The plan put in place to operate Santa Anita during this crisis will create a shelter-in-place environment while safeguarding both the horses and the people who care for them. There will be no additional risk to the 750 people who currently live on site or to the community at large.”

(Saratoga Race Course photo courtesy of Coglianese Photo/NYRA)