New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo put his state back in the horseracing game Saturday when he announced during his daily coronavirus briefing New York may resume spectator-free racing June 1.

NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo explained why he approved horseracing’s resumption during his Saturday coronavirus briefing. (Image: WRVO)

Along with Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields resuming in California and Churchill Downs resuming in Kentucky, this is one of the sport’s biggest announcements. New York is America’s COVID-19 epicenter, recording more than 346,000 cases and 22,304 deaths as of Saturday. That represents 23.5% of the country’s total coronavirus cases and more than 25% of its deaths.

It was a positive test of a Belmont Park backstretch worker on March 19 that forced the New York Racing Association (NYRA) to immediately close Aqueduct and suspend Belmont’s spring/summer meet. Martin Zapata, a Belmont backstretch worker, died from COVID-19 on April 7.

Belmont, Saratoga Create Welcome Market for Bettors

From a far less-important standpoint, New York’s racing resumption puts Belmont Park and Saratoga – along with their traditionally rich handles – back in the game for horseplayers. It also allows Churchill Downs to lay out further stops on the Kentucky Derby Trail.

The NYRA hasn’t released a date for the Belmont Stakes, originally slated for June 6, nor have they released an opening date for Belmont’s spring/summer meet, which was scheduled to run from April 24 through July 12. Saratoga’s summer meet is scheduled to begin July 16, with The Travers at Saratoga scheduled for Aug. 29.

Cuomo’s announcement came with a promise his office will provide additional safety guidance to tracks as June 1 gets closer. He said the state’s phased reopening plan provided for industries such as horseracing resuming earlier than others.

New York Racing’s Key Asset — Playing Without Crowds

“We are more nuanced in our analysis, looking for economic activities that you can start without crowds and without gatherings,” Cuomo said in his briefing. “Remember the problem here are crowds and gatherings. So what can you do? Or what economic activity is willing to reopen without a crowd? They’re talking about this in terms of sports. You can have baseball without a crowd, but it can still be televised. Great. You can have economic activity without a crowd, that’s great.”

Like baseball, Cuomo said horseracing can run without live crowds, and still draw viewers and interest on television. As such, when racing resumes, it will do so without fans and with only essential personnel required to conduct racing under state law.

Despite Workers Testing Positive, Training Never Stopped

The 800 Belmont backstretch workers, meanwhile, continued tending to the more than 1,500 horses stabled on the massive property. Training continued unabated, despite 18 workers currently quarantined and 47 others exiting quarantine – all after positive coronavirus tests. This, according to the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

Earlier this week, the NYRA said it contracted with Northwell Health to provide COVID-19 antibody testing for all NYRA employees and Belmont backstretch workers.

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