PHRC developing reopening plan for racing amid uncertainty

Update: May 1, 2020

Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association President Sal DeBunda provided an update on efforts to win approval for all Pennsylvania racetracks to resume racing without on-site patrons and the likelihood that Parx Racing will suspend its graded stakes program this year. The video is available here.

Posted: April 28, 2020

Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission staff is putting together a plan and various protocols related to coronavirus (COVID-19) that will be required when live racing resumes in the state.

Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing shut down in mid-March due to an executive order from Gov. Tom Wolf. All of the state’s six racetracks have casinos, which also were shuttered by the order.

“The commission is working on protocols and procedures for when we come out on the other side of this,” Tom Chuckas, Bureau Director for Thoroughbred Racing, said during the April 28 meeting of the PHRC. “Representatives of the racetracks, horsemen’s groups and racing commission had a meeting (April 27). Obviously all groups understand our success will be determined by a collaborative effort. The goal is quite simple: Use best practices, and they must be Pennsylvania-centric. When it comes time to open under the governor’s direction, we’ll be ready to go.”

Wolf on April 27 put forth his plan for reopening business and activities in Pennsylvania effective May 1. He used a traffic-light system of red, yellow and green to list what could resume in each of the three stages. Horse racing wasn’t specifically mentioned, but the yellow phase states that “entertainment” businesses such as casinos would remain closed in the yellow phase. No dates were given for the stages.

Earlier in April, Thoroughbred horsemen’s representatives said they believe live racing would not resume until the casinos get the green light to reopen. Pennsylvania racing derives most of its purse revenue from a cut of casino slot machine proceeds.

Sal DeBunda, a PHRC member who also serves as President of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association at Parx Racing, said he would like the racing commission to prepare and send a letter to Wolf suggesting that he open the racetracks as quickly as possible. Russell Redding, who serves as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture and also chairs the PHRC, said the letter should “express appreciation for the process that has been used” by the governor.

The letter will be sent in early May.

Wolf, during a budget address this past winter, announced that he wanted to create a college scholarship program that would take $204 million a year from the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Trust Fund to pay for it. The plan met with immediate opposition from the racing and breeding industry, as well as many lawmakers.

The status of the governor’s proposal is up in the air given the COVID-19 outbreak. Chuckas said officials have heard there could be a six-month state budget because of the virus situation or a regular fiscal year budget, and that the PHRC continues to seek answers.

“It has been all over the board,” said Redding, noting a $4.5 billion budget shortfall is projected because of COVID-19 and the economic shutdown. “They are live discussions at this point.”

(Penn National Race Course photo by Tom LaMarra)