As racetracks throughout North America began halting racing one-by-one in late March due to the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, by April 5 there still remained a handful of tracks still in business.
In early March there were almost two dozen racetracks in North America (Thoroughbred and Standardbred) still hosting racing but by the first weekend of April there were just seven remaining (two predominantly Quarter Horse racing), each one holding racing without spectators.
The major winter meetings at Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs in the state of Florida, Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and Santa Anita in California (recently shut down by the County of L.A. Health department) have had super racing and generally big fields, providing a great distraction for racing fans locked up at home.
While the Florida Derby card of racing on Mar. 28 at Gulfstream collected a reported $53.5 million in wagering, a record for that day and up some $6 million from 2019, a calculation of wagering for four racing dates in succession in late March realized a total dip in simulcast wagering.
Gulfstream Park does not have its wagering figures published by Equibase for its racing days but the Blood-Horse tabulated that $34.9 million in total was wagered on Mar. 18, 19, 20, and 21 a drop of four per cent.
At Tampa Bay Downs, three consecutive racing dates at the end of March saw a marginal increase in wagering from figures obtained by Canadian Thoroughbred.
A similar picture is seen at Oaklawn Park where wagering was up slightly over comparable dates in 2019 when it was one of more than 20 tracks racing.
Santa Anita, the most recent major track to shut down (last day was Mar. 22) was also shut down for a few weeks in the spring of 2019 after a rash of breakdowns. A different weekend was used to compare wagering patterns from 2019 to 2020 and this year, wagering, without on-track betting, was down almost 40 per cent.
But once April arrived and horse racing fans throughout most of North America had to settle in to the new ‘normal’ ‒ the stay-home measures ‒ the tracks still racing began to see brisker business.
On April 2, Golden Gate Fields in San Francisco was shut down by the Almeida County Health Department after showing some momentum in increased wagering over a year ago.
Through the first four racing cards of April for the five Thoroughbred tracks remaining in business the total wagering numbers were huge:
Gulfstream: $51.4 million
Oaklawn: $27.5 million
Tampa Bay: $21.5 million
Will Rogers: $9.7 million
Fonner Park: $7.8 million
The charts below compare the 2020 and 2019 dates in wagering.
(Note – The states of Arkansas (Oaklawn Park) and Nebraska (Fonner Park) had not implemented its citizens ‘stay home’ measures, allowing the tracks to keep racing)
Gulfstream Park, Hallandale, FLA
Florida Derby (G1) wagering
End of March/Early April Wagering
Fonner Park, Grand Island, Nebraska
It is fair to say that most Canadian racing fans and avid handicappers had never heard of Fonner Park before tracks in Canada and the U.S. Began to shut down because of the COVID-19 virus.
The 67-year-old track, located in Grand Island, Nebraska, is a five-furlong bullring that does its best business packing the stands of upwards of 6,000 fans.
There are no spectators allowed at Fonner beginning Mar. 23 but because so many tracks halted racing, the track has lured lots of off-track business.
Equibase results charts do not publish Fonner Park’s handle but a recent media release from the track illustrates how the small is attracting handle about four times what is the norm.
Despite the large handle increases, track general manager Chris Kotulak explained that Fonner Park isn’t seeing a windfall for the track or the purse account. “I had to disappoint some horsemen and a member of the racing media that was really excited, about how low our take is on this,” Kotulak explained, noting that Fonner typically receives only 3% to 4% of simulcast handle. “We’re pretty much at the bottom rung of host fees.”
Fonner Park – Top handle days since 2000
Will Rogers Downs, Claremore, Oklahoma
Owned by the Cherokee Nation, Will Rogers Downs and Cherokee Casino, is one of seven tracks still offering racing in North America as of April 2. The one-mile dirt track has also seen a huge increase in wagering through simulcast networks.