By T. D. Thornton
Sunday training at Belmont Park will cease starting Mar. 29, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) has confirmed.
The cutback to a six-day weekly training schedule comes in the wake of Thursday’s news that a Belmont backstretch worker tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
The worker and his roommate, who live in a Belmont backstretch dormitory, have been in isolation since Mar. 13. That coronavirus diagnosis led to the indefinite suspension of live racing at Aqueduct Racetrack as of Mar. 20.
NYRA had phased out stabling at Aqueduct at the beginning of this year, so there is currently no training there.
New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association president Joe Appelbaum told TDN that horsemen are supportive of the training cutback as a reasonable precaution during a pandemic.
“I think this is probably the first step to try to limit [coronavirus] exposure, not just for the training staff, but for the maintenance people and the clockers and the emergency medical personnel who need to be there,” Appelbaum said. “To be honest, it’s only one day. I know we’re a business and a sport of routines and habit, and it’s hard for people to understand [how important it is to follow health protocols]. But I think this will be the first of many adjustments, not the last.
“The number one concern is keeping our staffs healthy,” Appelbaum continued. “So we have to practice things that have been typically been frowned on in the past in our industry. That means if one of your workers is sick, the first thing they should do is stay home. They should not come to work, and we should do our best to pay everybody. We should be paying them not to come. That’s first and foremost. I know it seems like an amazing burden to our horsemen. But if more people get sick, we’re going to have no workers.
“And if they are exhibiting any symptoms, at least in New York, they can call the Backstretch Employee Service Team at (516) 488-3434, and they will help you from there. They answer the phone in both English and Spanish.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes to keep training at Belmont,” Appelbaum said. “We have a lot of staff who live there permanently, there are a lot of horses on the grounds, and this is the livelihood for our trainers. They have no other way to make money, so we’re going to take whatever precautions we need to do to maintain training there.
“I think along those lines, trainers need to start exploring how to work with a minimal, skeleton crew and to stagger people’s shifts and days so they have the least amount of people interacting with each other as possible,” Appelbaum said.
Asked to sum up the attitude on the Belmont backstretch in the wake of live racing being halted, Appelbaum said this:
“It’s a very can-do, ‘work, work work,’ attitude. People are nervous and scared, and rightfully so. But as for us cutting back live racing, let’s be honest: In a few days or a week, it will be amazing if any of the jurisdictions that are currently racing are still running. That said, there’s a great communal feeling back there as we’re delivering food to people who aren’t feeling well and trying to look out for each other. That’s really the most important thing.”