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Racetracks show it’s possible to race safely amid pandemic

Updated April 9, 2020 - 6:39 pm

The handful of racetracks still running are showing day by day that horse racing can be conducted in the midst of a pandemic, but each is almost certainly one COVID-19 case away from being closed.

On what normally would be a busy weekend, with a dozen or more tracks running and excitement building for the Kentucky Derby, only Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park, Remington Park and Tampa Bay Downs will offer thoroughbred racing.

The horses will be performing for an audience of none, with the public prohibited from attending but encouraged to bet from afar.

Contrast that with what has happened in California, where local public health officials shut down Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields, despite the fact that neither had reported a COVID-19 case.

Somehow Los Alamitos has evaded the “shut it down” movement and will present its usual quarter horse twilight cards this weekend, barring further intervention.

The rush to judgment in California was unfortunate, as it cost a lot of people their jobs and cut off a small but desirable revenue stream at a time when the state’s coffers are being rapidly depleted by the coronavirus crisis.

It also doesn’t appear that health officials have been even-handed in enforcing restrictions on public gatherings imposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Ray Paulick of the Paulick Report posted photos Tuesday on Twitter showing a crowd of people queued up at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, just a stone’s throw from shuttered Santa Anita, clearly violating social distancing directives.

I’m not knocking authorities from wanting to be cautious when it comes to enabling the virus to spread, but in this case, it sure looks as if they went off half-cocked.

New #RJhorseracing contest

As long as tracks are running, the #RJhandicappers will be at their work stations trying to solve the races. This week, as we launch another three-month contest, the quarry is two Oaklawn stakes races Saturday that drew deep fields: the $150,000 Oaklawn Mile and the $200,000 Oaklawn, a 1⅛-mile stakes race for 3-year-olds inserted into the schedule to provide a bridge to the rescheduled Arkansas Derby, which now will be run May 2 as a result of the postponement of the Kentucky Derby.

In the former, the handicapping crew is siding with 3-1 morning line favorite Tom’s d’Etat, despite the fact that he’s returning from a six-month vacation. They see Mr. Money (4-1) edging Snapper Sinclair (10-1) in the minor placings. Interestingly, they are shunning Improbable, the Bob Baffert-trained second choice on the morning line at 7-2, presumably because he drew on the far outside in the 14-horse field.

I can’t fault the gang’s logic, as Tom’s d’Etat should be tough to beat from the cozy 3 hole, but I’ll try to do so with Kershaw (20-1), who is taking a big step up in class but may get a perfect trip stalking just off the other speed horses in the field. I’ll go with Tom’s d’Etat to place and Long Range Toddy (10-1) to show.

In the Oaklawn Stakes, which drew an interesting cast of sophomores still nursing Triple Crown dreams, the crowd ’cappers appear to have refreshed their memories when it comes to Baffert’s exploits at the Arkansas track. They are solidly backing Thousand Words, the 5-2 morning line favorite, to rebound from a disappointing run in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 7. They have Basin (7-2) and Taishan (8-1) fighting it out for second, with the former prevailing by a whisker.

I’ll part company with my peeps on this one and go with Farmington Road (6-1), who finished a better-than-looked fourth in the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 15 when he lost lots of ground on the turns. I’ll use Thousands Words to place and Basin (7-2) to show.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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