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Horse racing in New York approaching the restarting gate amid pandemic

Spinoff walks onto the practice track in preparation for the 151st running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in June 2019. (Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports)

New York’s thoroughbred and harness tracks will be off and running again as of June 1 — but without spectators on site, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Saturday.

Cuomo gave horse tracks across the state, as well as the Watkins Glen International NASCAR track upstate, the green light to resume racing when they’re ready. But fans still won’t be permitted at any racing venue.

Each venue will need to establish state-approved protocol for the protection of all on-site workers, Cuomo added.

“We’re getting a little more nuanced with our analysis, looking for activities that we can start without crowds or gathering,” the governor said. He noted that horse and auto racing can be enjoyed from home, spurring remote economic activity through gaming while also entertaining New Yorkers who remain stuck inside.

Tracks across the state had suspended operations back in March as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped New York. Some venues, such as Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, continued racing for a period without fans due to capacity restrictions imposed to contain the spread.

Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens continued racing for weeks without fans, but suspended operations in late March after a backstretch worker tested positive for COVID-19. The New York Racing Association (NYRA), which oversees Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course, ultimately canceled the remainder of the Aqueduct season.

The Belmont Park spring/summer meet was scheduled to start in late April, but has been delayed until further notice due to the pandemic. Cuomo’s announcement on Saturday gives NYRA the ability to return to scheduled racing, but fans will continue to be barred from the track.

NYRA reopened Belmont Park’s main track for training on May 12 in anticipation of a return to racing. On Thursday, the gaming outfit announced that it secured COVID-19 testing for its backstretch workers, who care for the horses.

In a statement issued on Saturday afternoon, NYRA CEO & President Dave O’Rourke applauded the reopening decision, and said that the gaming outfit would soon announce race dates and a stakes schedule for the 2020 spring/summer meet at Belmont Park.

“We look forward to the resumption of live racing at Belmont Park with all appropriate health and safety protocols in place to support the hundreds of small businesses, family-owned farms and thousands of hourly workers who form the backbone of thoroughbred racing in New York,” O’Rourke said. “NYRA has developed a comprehensive safety plan that builds on our experience of operating training safely and responsibly during the pandemic, and includes extensive protocols to keep our community safe.”

There’s no word yet on whether the Belmont Stakes, the third jewel of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, will run on its originally scheduled date of June 6. The Kentucky Derby was pushed back till September, and the Preakness Stakes in Maryland will be run the first Saturday of October.

Asked whether Saturday’s decision opens the door for a return of other pro sports such as baseball, Cuomo said the state doesn’t have control of the leagues, but would welcome their return provided they could do so without risking a spike in the infection rate — essentially, that the games can be enjoyed from home without fans on site.

This story was updated on May 16 at 4:35 p.m.

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