N.Y. state halts racing; NYRA remains confident about Belmont

N.Y. state halts racing; NYRA remains confident about Belmont
Photo: Andrew Capone

Elmont, N.Y.

Prompted by Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.), the New York State Gaming Commission ordered Belmont Park and the other racetracks under its watch to stop all racing, training and workouts indefinitely because of the poor air quality in the tri-state area. A New York Racing Association spokesperson downplayed the thought that this move would put Saturday’s Belmont Stakes 2023 in jeopardy.

“The New York State Gaming Commission directed all tracks to stop all racing, training and workouts until further notice,” said a commission statement, which was posted to social-media platforms Thursday at 12:42 p.m. EDT. “The Gaming Commission continues to monitor air quality and rely on guidance from veterinary expertise to ensure any decision to resume racing is based solely in the best interest of the horse population.”

The impetus for the order came from Hochul.

“As New Yorkers continue to experience unhealthy air quality as a result of Canadian wildfires, we must all work to ensure that animals, including those peak-performance equine athletes, are protected,” she said. “The measures being implemented at tracks across New York state are effective steps to keep all those who participate in the sport safe now and into the future.”

A New York Racing Association spokesperson said the commission already had been working with NYRA to determine how to go forward, including the suspension of training and racing Thursday.

“This guidance was arrived at in consultation with the New York Racing Association and is grounded in our shared efforts to provide the safest possible environment for training and racing Thoroughbred horses,” Pat McKenna of NYRA said. “NYRA will continue to closely monitor air quality in and around Belmont Park in the coming days, and we remain optimistic that conditions will allow for the resumption of training and racing on Friday.”

The gaming commission’s edict came after the New York Racing Association called off training at Belmont Park and Saratoga as well as races that had been scheduled for Thursday at Belmont. Even though the sky looked much better Thursday morning, the forecast of more bad afternoon air led to the cancellation.

“Due to poor air quality, racing today at Belmont Park has been canceled,” a NYRA text message to horsemen said just before 9 a.m. EDT.

As far as NYRA is concerned, Saturday’s Belmont Stakes remains in place as scheduled while a wait-and-see approach is taken with the smoky conditions brought on by wildfires in Canada. The gaming commission’s order, however, might have changed the race from probable to questionable.

“Safety is paramount as we navigate this unprecedented situation,” NYRA boss David O’Rourke said in a written statement. “NYRA will actively monitor all available data and weather information as we work toward the resumption of training and racing both here at Belmont Park and at Saratoga Race Course. Based on current forecast models and consultation with our external weather services, we remain optimistic that we will see an improvement in air quality on Friday.”

NYRA announced Wednesday night that training at Belmont Park and Saratoga would be canceled Thursday morning.

“I haven’t seen any impact,” trainer Todd Pletcher said about Belmont Stakes colts Forte and Tapit Trice as well as his other horses. “Everybody seems to be well. All our temperatures were normal today. I’ve seen no coughing or anything that you keep an eye out for.”

“It is what it is,” said trainer Brad Cox, who has Angel of Empire, Hit Show and Tapit Shoes entered in the Belmont. “We’re all in the same boat. We’ve just got to get through it.”

The state Department of Environmental Conservation forecast a peak reading of 155 on Thursday for its air-quality index on Long Island. That is regarded as unhealthy. At Saratoga it was expected to reach 140, which is said by the DEC to be unhealthy “for sensitive groups.” On a normal day the AQI does not go above 50.

Visibility had improved a great deal Thursday morning and even more so by Thursday afternoon, when smidgens of blue sky could be seen through the dimming haze, a far cry from the rusty brown hue that was omnipresent a day earlier.

“This is completely different that it was yesterday afternoon,” Cox said. “We probably could have trained, I suppose.”

Thursday’s canceled card included the Grade 2 Wonder Again Stakes and the listed Jersey Girl Stakes, both of which will be redrawn and run Sunday.

Standards issued by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority call for racetrack managers to “monitor the facility daily if the AQI consistently reaches 100, and there is cause for concern in the local environment.” If the AQI gets to 150, HISA said, racetracks “may limit training to jogging and/or jogging and gallops only and be prepared to take further action if conditions worsen.” If it reaches 175, HISA said to “restrict activity at the track, including, but not limited to, canceling live racing, canceling official workouts and prohibiting galloping, breezing or anything more strenuous than a jog.”

The updated National Weather Service forecast said a hoped-for wind shift that could have blown the smoke away or at least made the air relatively cleaner will not happen before Thursday night. It said there would be “widespread haze” through the day. If there was any mitigating language, it was in the description of “widespread smoke, mainly before noon (EDT)” before it referred to “areas of smoke” Thursday night.

Taking things one day at a time, some wet weather could make things better. The NWS predicted a 20 percent chance of showers Thursday night with a 60 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms by mid-afternoon Friday.

For Belmont day Saturday, the forecast only went so far as to say partly sunny with a high near 72 and a 20 percent chance of showers.

In the meantime, trainers were left to walk their horses through laps in their barns rather than gallop them on the track.

“We did the shed row this morning,” trainer Antonio Sano said about his Belmont Stakes horse Il Miracolo. “About 45 minutes.”

“These horses are going to have to do something at some point,” Cox said. “We can’t keep them on the ground. They kind of get to be too fresh, but we’ll get to it.”

“You’d like to keep them in their routine,” Pletcher said. “You’d like to keep them exercising daily. It’s just a very unusual circumstance. ... I don’t think from a fitness standpoint it has any impact. Mentally, you’d like to keep them in their routine. It could be just a one-day situation where we can train tomorrow.”

Racing is not the only sports event in the area that was affected by the bad air. The New York Yankees postponed their baseball game Wednesday night against the Chicago White Sox and rescheduled it as part of a Thursday afternoon doubleheader.

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