After COVID outbreak, racing returns to Golden Gate

After COVID outbreak, racing returns to Golden Gate
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire
After a troubled 2020, Golden Gate Fields will look to turn the page starting Friday with the belated opening of its 2021 winter-spring meet following a widespread COVID outbreak.

Golden Gate went dark on Nov. 17 during its fall meet when it became clear COVID had infiltrated the backstretch area, starting with an initial 24 workers testing positive for the virus. Local media later reported more than 300 Golden Gate workers would ultimately test positive for COVID -- roughly 60% of a 540-strong workforce.

The virus outbreak cost Golden Gate in Northern California the final 16 days of its 2020 fall meet and the first 11 days of the winter-spring meet, which was originally scheduled to start Dec. 26. This latest shutdown followed a lengthy closure last spring due to COVID, as well as lost racing days due to nearby wildfires.

“It was a very tumultuous year for us,” noted Golden Gate General Manager David Duggan. “We had COVID in the spring, wildfires, then this latest [shutdown] was just the icing on the cake.”

Golden Gate will reboot again on Friday starting with an eight-race program, which features a robust 10.8 starters per race. Fans and owners will not be allowed to attend on-track.

[Related: Entries for Golden Gate]

Entries are strong throughout this entire four-day race week that concludes Monday with a special Martin Luther King Jr. holiday program. This has been particularly encouraging to officials as many Golden Gate-based horses during the shutdown were shipped out to tracks like Turf Paradise and Sam Houston Race Park.

Duggan estimated there are currently around 1,100 horses stabled at Golden Gate, which is down from the upwards of 1,300 that are typically on the grounds.

“It’s kind of heartbreaking when you see horse boxes and trucks leaving the property -- you sort of hope and wonder,” Duggan said. “But our trainers have been very, very loyal. And we understand they had to make quick decisions with regards to their animals. But we are reasonably confident they will come back. My racing secretary, Patrick Mackey, is fairly satisfied he has the population to card some good racing going forward.”

Current plans are for Golden Gate to race four days a week on a Thursday through Sunday schedule.

Local health officials gave Golden Gate the green-light to resume racing on Jan. 8 after an extensive quarantine and testing process of track workers. Unfortunately, the track’s COVID outbreak presumably played a role in the passing of veteran Golden Gate-based trainer Bob Hess Sr., who died from the virus.

While Golden Gate did have protocols in place to combat COVID, similar to other tracks around the country, they ultimately proved not enough to stop the outbreak.

“We had raced from March through November without any problem whatsoever. But this virus doesn’t announce itself and it doesn’t discriminate,” Duggan said. “We worked very closely with the Berkeley health department and they gave us some sound advice to get back racing, which we followed. Our only weapon against this virus is the knowledge we gain as we go along.”

Trainers contacted did not fault Golden Gate for the outbreak and subsequent shutdown. Among those were Jonathan Wong, the perennial leading trainer at the track. He said of his staff of 20, including himself, 18 ultimately tested positive for COVID.

“They went above and beyond,” Wong said of Golden Gate’s COVID protocols. “It’s like I’ve told other people, this came down to individuals. We know what the rules are, and there were a couple of people that were really lax with them. They disobeyed the rules and I feel that’s mainly why it got so out of hand.”

Wong said he typically has about 80 horses stabled at Golden Gate, but about 30 were shipped to either Turf Paradise or Sam Houston Park during the shutdown. He is not entirely sure if they will all return.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to get them back here soon, but they’re going to run first and we’ll see what happens,” Wong said. “After they race, I’ll have conversations with my owners and we’ll figure out what to do moving forward.”

Despite the extensive loss of business at Golden Gate the past year, Duggan indicated overnight purses have managed to hold steady. The stakes schedule starts with the $100,000 El Camino Real Derby for 3-year-olds on Feb. 13, which is a point-paying prep for the 2021 Kentucky Derby. 

As for Duggan -- who has had no shortage of issues to deal with since taking over as Golden Gate's general manager in early 2018 -- he is "chomping at the bit" to get things restarted.

"It's been frustrating at times," Duggan said. "But I'm confident we're in good shape."

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