Wet course crossings force Winterthur Races to cancel

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Rain forced a rare cancelation of a steeplechase meet in Delaware Sunday as saturated course crossings at the Winterthur Races created unsafe conditions for horses. The races will not be rescheduled, though the race committee will pay shipping stipends to owners who supported the meet with entries.

“I think we did the right thing, even if nobody’s happy about it,” said race chairman Josh Taylor Monday. “One horse slipping on a road crossing would have been too many and the course was not as safe as it could be. It’s not like we decided not to run because of the rain. We couldn’t get around an issue we’d never had happen before, that we couldn’t anticipate and that we couldn’t get fixed in time.”

Winterthur’s course is roughly a figure eight with most of the event space inside each circle – meaning there are nine course crossings for people and/or vehicles. The vehicle crossings feature a stone base, top-dressed with mulch, and topped again with heavy rubber mats before cars or trucks cross into the parking areas. The mats are removed and the mulch smoothed over before each race. Rain Saturday night and Sunday morning essentially waterlogged the crossings.

‘There was so much water under the mats and in the mulch that when the cars went over, water wash pushed down into the mulch and the ground that much more,” said Taylor. “The footing on the crossings became very inconsistent.”

The first race was delayed and staffers fixed the first crossing to exhibit the problem by adjusting the course slightly and adding fresh mulch. A similar problem near the second timber fence just over the hill from the finish line proved far trickier to repair because of the wet ground, access to that spot of the course with the right equipment and timing.

“The problem there was trying to get more mulch up the hill,” said Taylor. “We weren’t sure we could, but assuming we could, the truck with the much couldn’t be on the course or it would have caused even more damage and we would have had to manually move mulch, and get it on course. We figured it would take an hour and a half, maybe two hours. By this time we were already past post time for the first race.”

Owners and trainers may have waited, but spectators in parking areas probably wouldn’t have been as accommodating – given that the crossings are the only way out and more traffic was only going to make things worse. Cancelation became the only real option. Taylor said his committee considered staging the race meet on another day, or moving the races to another race meet this spring (such as Willowdale, Radnor or Fair Hill) but all involved expense, competition with other race meets or logistical issues.

Ultimately, Taylor’s committee chose to abandon the 2019 races (the Winterthur card, worth $71,000, included three timber races and a training flat) and provide the shipping stipend to owners.

As for the future, Taylor said evaluations were already underway to eliminate or at least minimize problems including discussions with other race meets for crossing options.

“Our main purpose was to make whole the owners who supported our race and through no fault of their own could not run,” said Taylor. “Every owner who entered a horse in at least one of the three timber races will be sent a travel stipend, an apology letter and a thank you. We know what it takes to get a horse to the races and we know how much horsemen invest in the industry. In some small way, we want to acknowledge that and thank them for supporting our race meet.”

NOTES: This was the first cancelation for Winterthur, which raced for 40 consecutive years on the course just north of Wilmington on the grounds of the Winterthur Museum and Gardens . . . The spring National Steeplechase Association calendar lost two meets in April (the Georgia Steeplechase, which canceled; and Tryon Block House, which announced a move to the fall), though Springdale Race Course hosted a second date to help ease the absences . . . The NSA calendar spring calendar wraps up with the Iroquois in Tennessee Saturday, Willowdale in Pennsylvania Sunday, Radnor in Pennsylvania May 18 and Fair Hill in Maryland May 24-25.