BOSTON — The 2020 horse racing season in Massachusetts was already going to be lighter than usual, but now the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the starting gun indefinitely.
The Gaming Commission voted Thursday to postpone the start of live harness racing at Plainridge Racecourse -- the only track that applied to host live racing in Massachusetts this year -- "until further notice."
The 110-day racing season was initially set to start April 6, but the commission had already pushed that back to June 1.
Alexandra Lightbown, the commission's director of racing, told the commission in a memo that she's been in close contact with a racing official from the track's parent company Penn National Gaming about Gov. Charlie Baker's extension of his essential work order until at least May 18 and that both sides agree that "a June 1st opening is not realistic" at this point.
"Bringing personnel on board, getting the track surface ready, having the track safety check performed, etc. all take time. We realize the hardship this pandemic has created for the horsemen and our staffs," Lightbown wrote.
Though there was no new possible start date discussed, Lightbown told commissioners that the situation is very fluid and rapidly changing, and will be re-evaluated as needed.
The slots parlor that Plainridge Racecourse shares a campus with has been closed under a Gaming Commission mandate since mid-March and the state's casinos will remain closed until at least May 18, if not longer given the expectation that businesses that host large crowds and require close contact between patrons and staff could be among the last to be given the green light to reopen.
In a letter to Penn National Gaming last week, the Harness Horseman's Association of New England stressed the importance of live racing to the economic wellbeing of its members, and pressed the track operators to detail both how they plan to make up for missed racing days and how they might safely resume track operations.
"HHANE members and other participants of the horse racing industry in the Commonwealth and beyond depend almost entirely on purse earnings from these Live Racing Days for their livelihoods," the group wrote. It added, "HHANE recognizes the difficulties presented by the current situation, but believes that being proactive in developing a plan for safe re-opening will allow racing and Massachusetts horsemen's ability to earn a living to resume at the earliest possible date."
Importantly, the group urged Penn not to link the resumption of track operations and racing to the reopening of the slots parlor.
"HHANE need not remind [Penn National Gaming] that their commitment to host such racing days is independent of their casino gaming operations," the group wrote, referring to an agreement between the track and the horsemen that the track will host 110 racing days this year, which typically is meant to give the horsemen some certainty about when and where they can race.
In a separate letter, the group's lobbyist suggested that the track might be able to open without spectators in the stands and with a screening protocol in place for all track staff.
"There is a clear and distinct difference between the precautions necessary to safely re-open a casino and the precautions necessary to open a race track, especially with strict Covid-19 protocols and no fans, while still being able to simulcast the signal to viewers," Martin Corry wrote to the commission. "The members of HHANE have been severely impacted by the loss of live racing at Plainridge Park Race Track. We want to work with the MA Gaming Commission and the Racing Committee and PNG to come forward with a safe and sound plan that will permit live racing to return to the track, independent from the reopening of the Casino."
Plainridge Racecourse was the only track that applied and was approved to run live races in Massachusetts this summer.
Thoroughbred racing has been on the decline for years and Suffolk Downs, which is bound for development, held the final races at the historic East Boston/Revere oval last summer. The group that operates the track has suggested it could revive thoroughbred racing in the Berkshires, but it has not applied yet to host racing and the plan has met local opposition.