MD task force develops protocols for resumption of racing

The Maryland Racing Commission April 23 was given an update on the work of a task force charged with developing protocols and procedures necessary for a return of live racing, which was suspended in mid-March because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

Many of them have been in place for weeks at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, which remain open for training. Before the state-ordered shutdown of live racing, Laurel successfully offered three days of racing with only essential personnel permitted on the grounds.

Alan Rifkin, an attorney for the Maryland Jockey Club, said officials with the MJC, The Stronach Group, Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and MedStar Health developed “protocols for when (Gov. Larry Hogan) and his administration believe it is the appropriate time to commence racing. We hope it is sooner rather than later. The horse population is a closed ecosystem. The protocols developed have been adhered to (during training) and the good news is they’ve been done without incident.”

The MJC in March greatly restricted access to the barn areas at the two racetracks and began a program of daily health and safety measures for trainers, backstretch workers, the security team and other members of the racing staff.

“The unique nature of our sport separates it from other sporting enterprises,” Rifkin said. “Because we can control who comes in and who goes out, it’s not much different (than a typical racing day). We hope to have protocols to present to (administration officials) so that at the appropriate time they can be taken to the governor when there is an opportunity to open.

“A large part of the (racing) community is suffering. This is a high priority for us. We walk a very fine line, but with great respect for the decision-makers.”

Alan Foreman, legal counsel for the MTHA, said Maryland racing has demonstrated a model for conducting racing in an environment without patrons, and because of that, “We think we will be at the front end rather than the back end when they allow us to do so. We’re working 24/7 to preserve the industry. We’ve made a case to (the governor) that we can resume operations in a safe manner.”

TSG, which owns the MJC tracks, recently sent a lengthy document of COVID-19 protection protocols it has implemented or will enact to win local approval to resume racing at Santa Anita Park in California. In an April 23 release the company indicated it would take seven to 10 days between acceptance of the plan and implementation of the protocols so racing can begin.

MRC Chairman Mike Algeo said though questions about a firm reopening date in Maryland dominate many discussions, he couldn’t offer a timetable.

“The answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ That decision will come from the governor’s office,” Algeo said. “I know nothing more than you do, except that the administration and (cabinet) secretaries are working diligently to make recommendations on what we can do and when we can do it.”

Hogan on April 24 is expected to offer further details on his “Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery Plan.” There is hope among racing industry officials that live racing can resume sometime in May, but much apparently depends on virus mitigation in the state.

MJC President Sal Sinatra said the suspension of racing offered his staff a chance to identify all horses in the two barn areas and begin scanning horses as they went in and out of the stable gate. Those procedures will be in place when live racing resumes, he said.

“We have in place a lot of procedures on the backside to keep everybody safe,” Sinatra said. “I’d like to thank all the horsemen and my staff. We’re taking advantage of the situation to get set up for when we come out (of the shutdown).”

The MRC April 23 also unanimously approved several regulations that previously were enacted on an emergency basis. They deal with a 14-day stand-down on intra-articular injections; lower permissible amounts in serum for phenylbutazone (Bute) and flunixin, two non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; and removal of the permissable levels of firocoxib and declofenac, also NSAIDs.

The changes are in line with those adopted by the Association of Racing Commissioners International at the recommendation of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. The MRC earlier adopted regulations that limit administration of any NSAID within 48 hours of a race and establish penalties if more than one NSAID is detected in a post-race sample above the established thresholds.

"Enhanced restrictions on the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and corticosteroids are crucial for protecting the health and welfare for horses in Maryland," said Steve Koch, Senior Vice President of Racing for TSG. "We applaud the Maryland Racing Commission for taking this step to keep pace with new research and national rules."

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