*Updated March 25 with cancelation of Willowdale and My Lady's Manor.*
The National Steeplechase Association’s spring schedule won’t be the only thing hit by COVID-19, and it certainly won’t be the most important, but the coronavirus disease decimated the early racing lineup with cancelations and postponements and probably isn’t finished.
All four meets in North and South Carolina – Aiken March 21, the Carolina Cup March 28, Tryon Block House April 11 and the Queen’s Cup April 25 – were canceled along with the My Lady's Manor (April 11), Grand National (April 18) and Maryland Hunt Cup (April 25) timber meets in Maryland, the Winterthur Races (May 3) in Delaware, the Willowdale Steeplechase (May 9) and the Radnor Hunt Races (May 17) in Pennsylvania and perhaps some others. A reconstituted schedule now looks to begin May 23 at Laurel Park and continue through June, though all plans are tentative and pending updates from state and federal government officials, the viability of individual race meets and the probability of NSA sanction.
“It’s all tentative right now, depending on if we get a green light or not,” said Al Griffin, president of the NSA. “The NSA cannot tell a race meet what to do and what not to do. We can’t tell them to run, and we can’t tell them not to run, and it’s all based on what’s allowed anyway.”
For now, and recognizing that it's all subject to change, the NSA has laid out a schedule of:
- May 23: Fair Hill Races at Laurel Park in Laurel, Md.
- May 30: Middleburg Spring Races in Middleburg, Va.
- June 13: Foxfield Races in Charlottesville, Va.
- June 14: the Cheshire Point-to-Point (which put one NSA race on the card this year).
- June 20: Virginia Gold Cup in The Plains, Va.
- June 27: Iroquois Steeplechase in Nashville, Tenn.
The Willowdale Steeplechase originally changed its date to June 6, and hoped to run, but announced its cancelation March 23. My Lady's Manor also at first hoped to reschedule to a new date, but also canceled.
Racing without spectators, and with essential personnel such as officials, trainers, jockeys and others (as flat racing has done), really isn’t a workable solution for the NSA schedule. There is no pari-mutuel wagering, meaning revenues are derived from sponsorship and ticket sales. In addition, most race courses are fully outdoors with temporary structures for admission, stabling, jockeys’ quarters, hospitality and so on which means controlling the environment is difficult if not impossible. Some meets have also been told that, because of the uncertainty surrounding the virus and its impact on local hospitals, emergency medical services could not guarantee coverage at events.
“There’s no way we can control the scenario of no spectators and it’s not a business model we can sustain,” said Griffin, also the chairman of the Virginia Gold Cup meet. “The attendees this year pay for the purses next year and so on. We’re dependent on that revenue to sustain us.”
Using his meet as an example, Griffin said he expects sponsorship revenue to drop in 2020 as businesses make alternative plans to hosting corporate events at steeplechase meets. Many meets have advance-sale ticketing policies, but will have to craft refund protocols for customers even if the meets run on new dates.
In response, Griffin said the Gold Cup will cut purses, slightly, but hopes to run. Contracts with sponsors and for tents, caterers and the like plus ticket and tailgate reservations all have various cut-off dates which will impact final decisions. By mid-April, Griffin hopes, everyone knows more about the impact of the virus and can follow rules about public events.
Though it all depends on public-health policies about public events, salvaging at least some of the schedule is the goal to assist race meets and horsemen.
“We’ve structured a program that makes sense,” said Bill Gallo, the NSA director of racing. “We’ve changed some races, added a few races and tried to create a little bit for everybody. I’m happy about that part and we’ve had a lot of cooperation among horsemen and race meets. The uncertainty is disturbing, but we’re doing the best we can.”
Griffin echoed that sentiment from a business standpoint.
“There’s no disgrace in missing a year,” he said. “The race meets that have canceled are apologetic, but they’re worried about a worst-case scenario. The margins are pretty slim. If they go to all the expense to throw a party and no one comes, or attendance is way down, they might not survive to run another year.”
The changes forced a look back in time, and the most apt comparison seems to be war. World War II halted most racing in the 1940s, including the historic Maryland Hunt Cup – which was first run in 1894 and held continuously through 1942. The war stopped the 4-mile timber classic for the next three years, but the nation’s oldest jump race returned in 1946 and has been held every year since. Until 2020. The cancelation denies Senior Senator a chance, for now, to become the race’s first four-time winner and also offers a glimpse into history. Hunt Cup hero Winton and owner/rider Stuart Janney Jr. won the race in 1942, took three years off, and returned to win in 1946 and 1947.
Organizers look at a potential postponement to October or November, but that didn’t fit for any number of reasons – tradition, course condition, human safety and preparedness of the horses chief among them. The Maryland Hunt Cup is a spring tradition, and has deep roots with the area’s foxhunting clubs. Hunting typically ends April 1, setting the table for spring timber racing.
“Our meeting was pretty short and sweet, well bittersweet,” said Liz McKnight, co-secretary of the Hunt Cup about her committee’s conversation Wednesday evening. “It’s the right thing to do. I’m sure it felt the same way to the committee during World War II.”
Historic in its own right with an 1898 beginning and a key Hunt Cup prep, the Grand National also canceled for the first time since the war years of 1943-45. Like McKnight, co-chair Forrest Kelly called it the right choice.
“I know it’s a lot of tradition, but they canceled the English Grand National and that’s more prestigious than anything we have,” Kelly said. “It’s bigger than horse racing. We’ll be back next year. It is what it is. It’s sad, but I also worry about the caterers and other businesses that are only loosely connected to us.”