Horse training continues at Emerald Downs racetrack in Auburn, but the opening date of the 2020 season remains uncertain with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everything is changing daily if not hourly, so it’s impossible to forecast,” said Vince Bruun, director of media relations, during a phone interview Thursday. “Somewhere between May 31 and June 20 would be a nice scenario for us.”
Emerald Downs was scheduled to open its 25th season April 18 and run through Sept. 20, a 63-day year.
“Emerald Downs is fully committed to offering live racing in 2020, when the current outbreak is under control and things begin to return to normal,” said Doug Moore, executive secretary of the Olympia-based Washington Horse Racing Commission, in a Friday email. “How this will look and when it may happen are out of the WHRC’s and Emerald Downs control at this time.”
Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday extended the stay-home order in the state to May 4 to combat the spread of the cornonavirus.
There are 532 horses in the barns as of Friday, Moore said. Forty-eight trainers have horses on the grounds and there are approximately 100 grooms caring for horses with 84 residing in the dorm rooms in the stable area, Moore said.
“When the outbreak occurred, horses were already stabled at Emerald Downs,” said Moore as trainers started earlier this year preparing horses for the season.
Moore said the racing commission took action March 23 to restrict access to the stable area.
“With the COVID-19 outbreak, the WHRC enacted an emergency rule to restrict access to the stable area to only those deemed essential employees,” Moore said. “Those allowed access are trainers, grooms, hay and feed suppliers, veterinarians, horseshoers, exercise and pony riders, and association employees necessary to maintain the racing surface and barn area.”
Agricultural activities are listed as essential businesses in the Governor’s Order.
“Activities in the stable area are agricultural in nature, the feeding and care of the horses,” Moore said. “Without these people the horses would not be taken care of.”
Steps also have been taken to screen people. And horse owners are not allowed in the stable area.
“Emerald Downs security is monitoring all licensees with access to the stable area and logs entry and exit from the area, asking questions to ensure anyone that may be exhibiting symptoms is not allowed in the restricted area,” Moore said.
Horses are trained five days a week for four hours per day.
“We are able to keep the stable area open and are doing that because if we are to have a season it takes 75 to 90 days to get horses ready, so once we get the word to start back up we will have some horses to race,” Bruun said.
Bruun and other Emeralds Downs employees are on furlough. A few security personnel and human resources employees remain employed.
Trainers are paid by the owners of the horses. The racetrack provides the stables for free. Owners have anywhere from one to 40 horses at the track. Bruun said it costs an owner about $60 a day per horse to cover the costs of the trainers, grooms and other personnel.
“It’s an impact to horse owners,” Bruun said about the delayed start to the season. “Right now at some point they need to be able to run for purse money (to offset their costs).”
Emerald Downs closed to the public two weeks ago. Prior to that, up to 250 people were allowed in the facility for simulcast wagering on other tracks across the nation.
Bruun said the racetrack has the flexibility to extend its season into October or maybe run a short season in the fall depending on how long racing is halted. He said he didn’t know what the date would be to make it too late to have a 2020 season.
Emerald Downs staff, however, is well aware they are not alone with the uncertainties.
“What’s happening to us is no different from anybody else in the world right now,” Bruun said. “It’s not just tough for us, it’s tough for everybody.”