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Governor Cuomo Gives Go-Ahead For Horse Racing To Begin Again Without Fans On June 1

Cuomo announced the plans during his press briefing on May 16.

Belmont Stakes
Sir Winston crossing the finish line in the 2019 Belmont Stakes. (Billy Francis LeRoux)

After New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on May 15 the hard-to-swallow news that the work-from-home order would be extended for the Capital Region and Long Island (and three other regions) until May 28, he followed it up the next day with some extremely positive news for the two regions.

In his May 16 press briefing, Cuomo announced that horse racing tracks would be able to open without fans as early as June 1, with specific guidelines for the required personnel at the tracks. “If you can have economic activity without a crowd, that’s great,” said Cuomo, referring to the various “attractive nuisances” such as racetrack and ballparks across the state. (This includes both Thoroughbred and harness racing tracks.)

In other words, that means that the New York Racing Association (NYRA) can reopen Belmont Park, which is based in Elmont, NY, on Long Island, without fans as early as June 1 (Belmont recently opened its main track to training). The news from the governor comes on the same day that NYRA started offering voluntary COVID-19 antibody testing, provided free by Northwell Health, for all staffers and backstretch workers at Belmont. Health protocols that have already been put in place by NYRA at Belmont include mandatory health screenings and temperature checks for all personnel seeking to access the property; policy and workplace adjustments to support strict social distancing; mandatory personal protective measures, including required face masks; and preventative quarantine protocols, testing and contact tracing.

In a statement later in the afternoon, NYRA’s President and CEO David O’Rourke said: “NYRA and the New York racing community are thankful for Governor Cuomo’s steady leadership throughout this public health crisis and we applaud his decision to authorize the resumption of horse racing, without fans, beginning on June 1.” He continued: “We look forward to the resumption of live racing at Belmont Park with all appropriate health and safety protocols in place to support the hundreds of small businesses, family-owned farms and thousands of hourly workers who form the backbone of thoroughbred racing in New York.”

O’Rourke didn’t specify whether Belmont would kickoff its spring/summer meet on June 1, but said that “NYRA [would] announce race dates and a corresponding stakes schedule for the 2020 spring/summer meet at Belmont Park in the very near future.”

Obviously, the most important piece of the Belmont schedule will be the running of the Belmont Stakes, which this year, will officially serve as the first leg of the Triple Crown. The Kentucky Derby was already rescheduled to September 5, and it was just announced this evening that the Preakness Stakes would be running on October 3.

The final piece to this puzzle, of course, is Saratoga Race Course, which was already facing a summer season without fans, and like Belmont, is in a region that has yet to officially restart its phased reopening. It stands to reason that there will, in fact, be a racing season at Saratoga, though it’s still unclear whether the governor would be amenable to allowing the many NYRA personnel, backstretch workers and horsemen, who are currently at Belmont, to travel from the downstate track to Saratoga. The risk there would be of driving up the infection rate and in turn, the 14-day hospitalization and hospitalized death rates again, respectively, which are currently holding the Capital Region back from beginning its phased reopening. It’s entirely possible that, by the time Belmont’s spring/summer season is over, both Long Island and the Capital Region will have reached the benchmarks needed to begin their phased reopening, but it’s too soon to tell at this point.

Opening Day at Belmont was originally scheduled to take place on April 24, but was pushed back indefinitely due to the COVID-19 crisis. The Belmont spring/summer meet was originally supposed to end on July 12, four days before the original kickoff date for Saratoga. So, if NYRA were to reopen Belmont on June 1, its schedule would be one month and a week behind schedule. Whether or not Belmont’s lateness will push back Saratoga’s schedule or shorten its season remains to be seen (the opposite could also occur).

It’s also unclear how all of this news will affect the Saratoga stakes schedule, as the gem of the meet, the Travers Stakes, has traditionally run after all of the Triple Crown races have been completed in late August. Could it be run as a super prep race for one of the legs of the Triple Crown earlier in the meet? All will be revealed in the coming weeks.

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Will Levith

Will Levith is Editorial Director at Saratoga Living and Capital Region Living magazine. He's a native Saratogian and graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. His work has been published by Esquire, Playboy, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Health, RealClearLife and many others. He lives in Troy with his wife, Laura, and dog, Esopus.

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