AUBURN — In many ways, it is business as usual at Emerald Downs, with trainers, grooms and exercise riders going about their jobs as if racing were going to begin in a month.
But there is a palpable air of uncertainty and unease. So many questions, and no real answers.
Will the racing season go on as scheduled? What if the coronavirus hits the backside of the racetrack, an isolated and insulated community whose job is to keep the horses fit and healthy? What will it mean if the track can’t open on time, and will there be enough employees to handle an influx of horses? And where to eat and hang out, now that the Quarterchute Café is closed for dining in?
The opening day of racing this year at Emerald Downs is scheduled for April 18, but no one knows when the track will open for racing — not even Phil Ziegler, the track president.
Many racetracks elsewhere in the country are holding races without fans, “but we’ll see if tracks next week are still even doing that,” Ziegler said.
As to how fast things can change, Emerald Downs stopped offseason simulcast wagering on other racetracks from its facility Tuesday and the Kentucky Derby was postponed from May until September.
Emerald Downs has about 350 people working on the backside, another term for the stable area of the track, with many workers living on-site in 144 dorm rooms. Ziegler said there have been no coronavirus cases among backside workers; in fact, no one has reported having symptoms.
“We’ve tried to stay one step ahead of this,” Ziegler said. “Last week, we asked to restrict access to the barn area to nonessential people — that only essential, licensed personnel people should be back there to minimize interaction with people taking care of the horses.”
CDC recommendations have been posted in English and Spanish throughout the barn area. Sanitizing, always a big thing in this industry, has gone to a new level.
If someone from the backside were to test positive for the coronavirus, the work has to continue. The horses, who can’t contract coronavirus, need to be cared for.
“The backside is different and distinct than the businesses that are shutting down — the entertainment and social businesses,” said Doug Moore, executive secretary of the Washington Horse Racing Commission. “The backside is an agricultural business. Those horses are back there, getting watered, fed and cared for and you cannot quarantine and shut that facility down. We are working with Emerald Downs to monitor the employees back there and if anybody gets sick to take action right away, and get them isolated and quarantined if we can, but you don’t shut the backside of a racetrack down.”
Perhaps horse racing has an advantage in that it’s used to dealing with contagious viruses.
“We are well-versed in biosecurity here, because usually we are battling it the other way around, trying to contain horse influenza rather than people stuff,” said Jack Hodge, vice president at Emerald Downs. “But biosecurity works both ways. If we had an incident where someone tested positive, then we can isolate them here.”
Said Tom Wenzel, one of Emerald Downs’ top trainers for years: “We sanitize everything anyway. We’re faced with viruses and bacteria all the time. We’re exposed daily to that, and people on the outside don’t understand that.”
Wenzel said he is not freaked out about catching coronavirus, but he is freaked out about what it could do to the industry and to his business.
“If we have to shut down for business here, financially it’s going to kill us all,” he said. “We can’t shut down and reload. It cost me 30 grand to get my barn up and starting. If I have to shut down and try to do it again, I don’t think so. My pockets aren’t that deep, and believe me, most of these guys are probably in worse shape than me.”
For now, things are moving forward at Emerald Downs. There are 539 horses at the track, which is expecting up to a couple of hundred more to arrive this weekend from Arizona after Turf Paradise in Phoenix ended its season early last weekend because of coronavirus concerns. With more horses comes need for more staff.
Trainer Kay Cooper has 17 horses at the track and has eight more from her farm that she would like to bring to the racetrack. But she can’t find enough help to do that.
“No one wants to come in and work because of the virus, especially people from Turf Paradise,” Cooper said. “People are worried about coming up here. We need employees. We are short on gallop people for the whole backside, and I need a couple of grooms so I can bring more (horses) in from the farm.”
While most of the daily rituals have remained unchanged, one changed Monday when the Quarterchute Café on the backside of the track had to react to Gov. Jay Inslee’s order that restaurants no longer have dine-in eating. The Quarterchute is more than just a place to eat on the backside, it’s also a place to socialize.
Quarterchute Café owners Joe and Sally Steiner, who have been in the horse-racing business for decades, are having to lay off much of their staff. But they will continue to serve takeout orders, knowing that many backside workers do not have cars and depend on their cafe.
“Its very important that we be there for them,” Sally Steiner said. “We’re all a family back here. We celebrate together, and we cry together. Everybody is going through horrible things. We want to help out all that we can, because we are all in this together.”