Coronavirus in Oklahoma: The fans are gone, but the betting goes on at Remington Park
Jockey James Flores said Remington Park has felt like a ghost town this spring with no fans in attendance.
"It's not the same without the fans," said Flores, the top jockey at Remington Park the past two quarter horse seasons. "It feels very different. The same energy is just not there. I miss it. I miss the crowd."
While most of the sports world has shut down the past two months because of COVID-19, horse racing continued in Oklahoma and Arkansas under strict protocols with no fans. Jockeys, horse trainers, stable workers and others in the industry are grateful to be racing, but say it feels eerie at the track without the cheering, screaming and noise from fans.
"For the most part, you go up and watch your horse run and then you come back to the barn," said thoroughbred trainer Donnie Von Hemel, of Piedmont, who raced at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, this spring. "It's quite a different feeling. The social aspect of the game, which is a big part of it, especially for your clients, is missing. There are no concessions. No windows open. There's nothing. It is strange."
Churchill Downs in Kentucky will begin racing without fans or media on Saturday, a month behind schedule. Von Hemel said the example of Remington Park, Oaklawn and other racetracks in the country staying open without fans helped horsemen in Kentucky persuade the governor along with county and state health officials that it could be done safely.
The Kentucky Derby was moved to the first Saturday in September instead of the first Saturday in May, but Von Hemel doesn't see the world's most iconic horse race happening without spectators.
"This is just my opinion, but they won't run if they don't have fans," he said. "They make so much money that Derby week."
At Remington Park, everyone's temperature is taken before being allowed in. If someone is running a fever, they are sent home. Social distancing is required and groups of no more than three prepare the horse for the race.
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"They want you to take care of business and go home," Flores said.
Dale Day, who has been the race announcer at Remington Park since 1993, said one of the most noticeable differences is in the winner's circle after a big money race, such as the Remington Park Futurity in April. A winning horse likely would have several owners and they would all pose beside numerous family members, trainers and grooms for a photo in the winner's circle.
"Literally, you may have a hundred people stacked up three or four rows deep on stair steps behind the horse," Day said. "That is not the case anymore."
Day's job as the announcer hasn't changed even though there are no fans. He is still perched in the announcer's booth calling the race for the simulcasts. The difference now is the only voice he usually hears is his own.
"When there is a crowd of normal fans, you can hear them getting louder as the horses come down the stretch, even though I am enclosed in a booth 80 feet above them behind half-inch glass," Day said. "Now, it's just the 20 or so horsemen scattered about down there on the plaza waiting for the horses to come back. Unless one of them whoops it up, I really don't hear a sound.
"The atmosphere and the excitement level you would normally have on a beautiful spring night at Remington Park is totally absent."
More people, however, are watching the Remington Park horse races from afar.
Racetracks that are running without fans have seen the average handle — the total amount of money bet — triple because other sports have been shut down. Gamblers without other professional and collegiate sports to bet on have turned their attention to horse racing tracks that are still running, like Remington Park.
Remington Park's nightly handle now is regularly between $2 million and $3 million, and sometimes more than $3 million, because of increased online wagering. That is three times more than what it normally would be during the quarter horse season before COVID-19, where it would top $1 million only on a few nights. But that doesn't mean the track is reaping those kinds of profits.
"You get a smaller cut of that because there are other people with their hands in the pie," Von Hemel said. "It probably takes four times the simulcast handle to equal a live (on track) dollar wagered."
Horse racing enthusiasts, and maybe just starved sports fans, from around the world have also discovered Remington Park.
"We have become huge in the U.K. and Australia," Day said. "They are picking us up over the internet and watching us on websites and maybe betting or not. We are like the Breakfast Club down under. They are watching us as they wake up and eat their breakfast in the morning."
The thoroughbred season normally opens in August at Remington Park, and Von Hemel thinks it's 50-50 whether it will start with fans in attendance.
"Each day we wake up and we don't know which way that curve is going to be headed," Von Hemel said.
While not ideal, continuing to race without fans has saved jobs, Von Hemel said. While purses had to be adjusted, "we are still getting to run our horses and trying to make some money for our stable and our clients and be able to pay our crew, be able to keep them all employed. Those are all good things in this era we are living in," he said.
Day said there are nearly 60,000 people in Oklahoma who make some, if not all, their income from the agriculture business that horse racing facilitates. And while it's not the same without fans, Von Hemel said a day at the races can still be exciting.
"When you win, it is still pretty good," he said.