In what felt like an instant the sports world ground to an abrupt halt right as word came down that Utah Jazz center, Rudy Gobert tested positive for novel Coronavirus (”COVID-19”). That one piece of news set off a domino effect that resulted in the suspension of the NBA and NHL seasons, the cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournament, and an indefinite shutdown of mainstream sports – nothing to watch, nothing to tweet about, nothing to spew hot takes about, and nothing to gamble on. Or so you would think.
While the rest of the sports world stands still, one sport remains relatively unscathed: horse racing. Normally, the average fan would be weeks away from beginning to think about horse racing, doing the annual skimming of the Kentucky Derby race card for funny-sounding names to wagers on. Though the future of the most prized races in the sport, the vaunted “Triple Crown”, which includes the aforementioned Kentucky Derby, The Preakness Stakes, and The Belmont Stakes, remains in doubt the horse racing industry remains business as usual.
“The response to Coronavirus has been beneficial to horse racing in that you don’t need very many people to operate a racetrack without spectators. All tracks are open and you can still bet on races online. 90% of the handle (the betting pool) worldwide already comes from off-track wagering anyway” said long-time horse racing industry veteran and Horseracingnation.com Founder and CEO, Mark Midland.
In what are uncertain times, the sports consuming and wagering public is starved for some action and many are beginning to flock to horse racing, as according to Midland, there has been a rise in the amount of money being wagered on the races. Midland, who also operates a horse racing handicapping contest website called Derby Wars added “We saw a significant uptick on Derby Wars this past weekend as a result of the lack of competition from others sports.”
At this point, it does not appear that Coronavirus is communicable to horses and in a sport where the animal is the athlete, that’s good news. According to Midland the industry is not seeing any real residual impact on the stud fees and auction prices for horses as of yet either.
What remains to be seen is whether this sports vacuum that has been created as a result of the protective measures being taken to prevent the further spread of the virus, will provide an opportunity for a sport like horse racing to create new fans and generate mainstream interest outside of those six weeks between the beginning of May and the middle of June. It already has most of the essential ingredients that a sport needs to be successful, including a fast pace, pageantry, and of course many exciting and creative ways to gamble. Unfortunately, the one thing horse racing does not have is mainstream TV or streaming distribution outside of the Triple Crown races. Though there are existing contracts between race tracks and channels such as TVG, perhaps content-starved networks might be open to carrying some races.
“Right now, the Kentucky Derby trail is in full swing with the Louisiana Derby coming up this weekend and the Florida Derby at Gulfstream park right behind it,” said Midland. In other words, there’s plenty of racing action for those who might be interested in giving it a try.
As far as the fate of the annual “Run For The Roses,” the industry is expected to take its cue from Churchill Downs (the racetrack that hosts the Kentucky Derby) and an announcement as to the fate of the Derby is expected at some point this week. According to Midland, there have been rumblings that the Derby could be rescheduled to June or September as those are times Churchill Downs has other scheduled race meets. Like the other sports affected by Coronavirus, that would obviously alter the schedule of the other Triple Crown races and could perhaps have residual impacts on other big race meets such as the annual summer meet at Saratoga Race Course.
When it comes to the prospects of cancelling the Triple Crown altogether, Midland who is also a Louisville resident, noted “I don’t think cancelling the races is a realistic option. The Kentucky Derby handle is more than $150,000,000 on race day alone.”
The economic implications of cancelling notwithstanding, right now it’s hard to envision that events whose attendance regularly exceeds 100,000 is something that will be taking place anytime soon, especially in light of the CDC’s guidance on keeping gatherings to 50 or fewer people for at least the next eight weeks.
Regardless of the fate of the Triple Crown, having something you can depend on in these uncertain times is something that can’t be underestimated or overlooked. It also doesn’t hurt that you can gamble on it either.