Thoroughbred racing at Belmont Park kicked off yesterday with no fans in the stands. Upstate in Saratoga Springs, today marked the official start of the training season before an unprecedented summer season.
A clear sunny morning greeted the first horses to work out on the Oklahoma Training Track, perhaps a bit warmer than the normal start to training in April.
The New York Racing Association, which operates racing at Saratoga Race Course, pushed back the training schedule this year due to COVID-19. Safety procedures have been implemented and everyone walking onto the grounds Thursday had their temperature checked.
Unlike in years past, the training track is closed to the public and owners. There will be no crowds for sunrise workouts this year.
Trainer H. James Bond, who was wearing a blue face mask appropriately marked “007,” spoke to a group of reporters next to the training track. He’s glad to be back at Saratoga, and said the uncertainty of the pandemic was difficult.
“Because you wonder how much farther you can go. OK? Because we haven’t laid anybody off. And it’s been hard. We have a big farm here in Stillwater. We’ve got a bunch of people there, mares and foals and other – about 80 horses there. They all have to be cared for every day, OK? It’s seven days a week. They don’t stop. The horses need to be exercised, these are professional athletes,” said Bond.
Today is Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott’s first day back, too. Coming up from Florida, Mott said all of his staff was recently tested for COVID-19.
“And to come through the gate here, everybody’s got to have a negative test, which so far has worked out very well. It’s been very easy, the protocols are not difficult, and I think it’s something we can certainly live with. It’s not something that we’re used to on a normal basis, but it’s not normal times. So it’s just something that we’ve got to do,” said Mott.
Racing is underway at Belmont and a Saratoga meet is slated to begin in July, albeit without fans. Mott says those who work with the horses will still be paid a base salary, but it is winning races that provides an income.
However, a stakes schedule has not yet been released for Saratoga. Triple Crown races like the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and the Preakness in Maryland have been moved to the fall. The Belmont Stakes, typically the final Triple Crown test, is instead going first this year, on June 20th.
There’s still no word on the Spa’s biggest races, the Whitney and the Travers.
“We just don’t know. You know what I mean? You try to keep the horses ready and once the stakes schedule comes out…then we’ll see if we can make them fit in,” said Mott.
But for both Mott and Bond, the biggest change is the lack of a cheering crowd. Bond says his horses know the difference.
“You know, the horses and the people, the trainers, the jockeys, the owners, we love the fans. Because, I mean, they tolerate us when we do a bad job and they cheer for us when we do a good job. There’s no fan like New York, OK? I race everywhere in the world…nobody’s like New York.,” said Bond.
Opening Day for what’s sure to be a very different Saratoga meet is set for July 16th.