Horsemen in survival mode with racing industry in limbo


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Oceano Rosso, a 4-year-old filly that won twice at Monmouth Park last summer, was set to run on March 14 at Parx in Bensalem, Pa., where trainer Bill Hogan, a Middletown resident, has his horses stabled. And after Parx suspended racing that same day due to the spreading coronavirus, Hogan tried to enter her in a pair of races at Penn National in Grantville, Pa., failing to get into either race before that track shut down.

“Then last Friday we were going to run at Laurel, and up until the day before we were going to race,’’ Hogan said. “Then the day before they decided only horses stabled at Laurel and Pimlico could run, and then on Friday they canceled racing altogether.”

Like every other aspect of life since containing the COVID-19 virus became the top priority, local horsemen are left to navigate a treacherous new landscape that threatens to put many in economic peril.

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Horses head to the track at Monmouth Park in a 2016 photo. The Oceanport racetrack has already pushed its opening day back three weeks during to the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo: File photo)

Because while trainers and owners are in limbo with no prize money up for grabs in the foreseeable future, thousands of thoroughbreds are still being trained, fed and maintained, whether they’re stabled at area racetracks or on farms preparing for the Monmouth Park meet, with opening day already pushed back three weeks to May 23.

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“These are uncharted waters for all of us,’’ said trainer Gregg Sacco, an Ocean Township resident whose horses are stabled at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. “Everyone is in the same boat. These are tough times for horsemen all over the country, something none of us have ever experienced.

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“I speak for myself, but I think I speak for my fellow trainers in that, it’s a small margin of profit that we make training horses.  We make our money racing and making the 10 percent (of the purse), or purse money from horses we own or own a piece of.”

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It can cost $400 or more a week for an owner to keep a racehorse in training, between an exercise rider, a hotwalker, feed, hay and any vitamins or supplements needed, as well as paying the trainer. And it adds up quickly if there are no races to run in.

“It’s going to be a very tough situation, because you would hope you’re able to race them and recoup some of the money that it’s costing you to train them. And for some people, that is their livelihood,” said Monmouth Park trainer James Frangella, who owns Eatontown TV & Appliance.

“It’s a tough time for everybody. I have a retail business, I have a skeleton crew and we have people coming in in dribs and drabs. Most are staying in lockdown.”

Then there’s the fear of contracting the coronavirus. A backstretch worker at Belmont Park tested positive last week, which resulted in the cancellation of racing last Friday at Aqueduct, where horses that stable and train at Belmont Park run races throughout the winter and early spring.

“We have a neighbor’s horse – a standardbred – and we gave him one of our paddocks because he didn’t want to continue going to Gaitway (Farm in Manalapan) because of the possibility of becoming infected,” said Geri Kromann, a thoroughbred owner with a farm in Millstone. “So you do something for your neighbor, people-to-people, but he’s just one person. And that horse is ready, because trotters used to run every week and now he is out of commission. So multiply that by the people anxiously waiting for Monmouth Park to open.”

It seems everyone has stories about the new reality the country is trying to deal with, understanding that the extreme measures are a necessity if there’s any hope of racetracks reopening in the coming weeks.

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“I had four horses, 2-year-olds, headed up from Florida,” said Sacco. “New York, because of new protocols going into effect, was not letting any horses in. So I had to divert the horses coming to Belmont to Overbrook (Farm in Colts Neck).

“Everyone is going to have bumps in the road. The owners are local guys, they understand, and hopefully we can put them under my shed at Monmouth Park on May 1. It’s complete limbo for everyone.”

Stephen Edelson is a USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey sports columnist who has been covering athletics in the state and at the Jersey Shore for nearly 35 years. Contact him at: @SteveEdelsonAPP; sedelson@gannettnj.com


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