The COVID outbreak that led to the shutdown of Golden Gate Fields in November was “brutalizing,” said Aidan Butler, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group’s 1/ST Racing and president of 1/ST Content.
Racing was halted Nov. 13, after 24 workers tested positive. Eventually, local health officials reported that more than 300 workers at the San Francisco Bay Area track tested positive for COVID, representing roughly 60 percent of the 540-member workforce.
Racing resumes at Golden Gate Fields on Friday.
Butler was based at Santa Anita when the pandemic began. After being named to his current positions in October, he relocated to Florida, where he oversees racing operations at the Stronach tracks and training centers on the East Coast.
The Golden Gate outbreak was a learning experience, he said.
“The fact of the spread so quickly at Golden Gate – and what happened seemed to be a huge asymptomatic spread – it reaffirmed our position of having to really double down and made us all sharpen our pencils and keep evolving the protocols as they go," Butler said.
And with Gulfstream Park gearing up for its Pegasus World Cup day next Saturday, Butler said, the scale of the company’s operation has created opportunities to share information.
“We’re lucky, and we’re unlucky,” he said. “We’re unlucky because we’re so big, but we’re lucky because every single week, every single health and safety (director), general manager, head of security – we’re all on a massive call. We get to share issues, we get to learn. …
“Being as big as we are, we managed to learn quickly. Every mistake made was a mistake that somebody else didn’t have to make.”
Officials must be wary of becoming complacent as the pandemic drags on, Butler said.
“We just have to really keep giving ourselves a bit of a slap round the face and realize that this thing’s still getting bad," Butler said. "It’s worse than ever from a pandemic-spread standpoint. And yet we’re operating in a safe way.”
Florida allows facilities to be filled to capacity indoors, but Gulfstream officials have no intention of doing that.
For regular race days, horsemen are the only outsiders allowed at the track. For Pegasus World Cup day, Gulfstream plans to sell 1,925 tickets. By comparison last year’s attendance was 12,500. Most of the tickets will be for outdoor seating divided into 14 individual small events.
“What we’ve done is we’ve created various outdoor areas where there’s no intermingling allowed,” said Marcelo Toledo, Gulfstream’s director of health and safety. “So before, where we would have everyone on the apron together, shoulder to shoulder, now every area of the property has been cut down to less than 300 people per outdoor area – with seating, social distancing – and nobody’s allowed to intermingle between the areas. So it’s actually multiple small events.”
Florida “is a little lenient” on on masking and similar measures, Toledo said. “Down here, being that we’re the highest numbers in the state, we have mandatory mask use while you’re on the property at all times.”
Indoor seating will be limited to tables against the windows facing the track. “There’s not rows and rows” of tables, Butler said.
Stronach has travel protocols that apply to jockeys and all employees. Any who have traveled to Gulfstream from within the U.S. must take an approved COVID test upon arrival in South Florida and a second test on day five. Those traveling from another country also must quarantine away from Gulfstream for 14 days and then be tested.
Although Gulfstream officials have been able to draw on Stronach resources to set protocols and put plans in motion, Butler emphasized that it has not been easy.
“Golden Gate bore the brunt of what can happen if a series of infections get out of control,” he said. “So we all learned from that, and we’ve all doubled down, become a little more resourceful. It’s like I keep trying to say to everyone on the team at Golden Gate – and they are my team, God love 'em – there’s no management course on how to deal with a pandemic. There’s no management course on how to operate a business with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people living there during a pandemic.
“But I’ve never seen a group knuckle down and work so hard. And they went through some awful stuff, and a lot of people got infected with COVID-19. But they’ve really battled, and that’s testament to the hard work. I know I’m proud of them all.”
When the situation was at its worst at Golden Gate, Butler said, “there’s only so many words you can say to try and help. Not just my guys at the track, but we’re talking the backside employees, the owners, the trainers who have stuck with that place, kept paying their bills even though there was no light at the end of the tunnel, really, for a while.
“Now we’re good, we’ve got the green light to run. But for the longest time, it was pretty bleak. So it’s a testament to our whole industry, I think, that people have managed to stick in.”