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Horse racing could come spinning out of the turn — with coronavirus precautions in place, Pritzker says

Pritzker wants to know, “how far apart do people need to be, can they safely distance on the backstretch ... and when they’re lined up in a race, how far apart do they really need to be? Do they need to be in stalls that are two apart?”

A horse returns from finishing a race on a muddy track at Hawthorne Race Course in October 2017.
A horse returns from finishing a race on a muddy track at Hawthorne Race Course in October 2017.
Sun-Times file

Railbirds won’t be allowed to hang around, but Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday he thinks the state’s three horse tracks could be back off to the races “at some point” with coronavirus precautions in place.

Pritzker said during his daily COVID-19 briefing that he’ll allow racing to resume “when it’s determined that there are rules that will keep everybody safe. That’s the most important thing.”

As part of his plan to reopen the state economy in phases across four different regions, Pritzker said his team is working out safety guidelines with leaders in various industries champing at the bit to get back to work.

For a decimated racing industry that was struggling long before the crisis hit, Pritzker wants to know, “how far apart do people need to be, can they safely distance on the backstretch ... and when they’re lined up in a race, how far apart do they really need to be? Do they need to be in stalls that are two apart?

“You have jockeys, of course, and not to mention the trainers or the people working with jockeys at the start of a race, so all those things need to be considered,” Pritzker said.

Like other major sports eyeing a return to the playing field, no fans — called ‘railbirds’ at the tracks — will be allowed in attendance, “but it is possible, I think ... that there will be some approval at some point for all of horse racing,” Pritzker said. “But again, I’m going to leave that to the experts, particularly the doctors to make sure that everybody can do it safely.”

A railbird studies the Racing Form at Hawthorne Race Course in 1996.
A railbird studies the Racing Form at Hawthorne Race Course in 1996.
Chicago Sun Times archives

But the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association says Pritzker still holds the reins. They say three weeks ago they, along with racetrack owners and the state Agriculture Department, submitted “a plan on how we can return to racing safely,” and even got the OK from the state Department of Public Health

“Unfortunately, we still have no word on when we can return to work,” the harness trainers’ association said in a statement last week. “We had been anticipating that by now, we would have a plan in place for a return to live racing without spectators. The decision rests in the hands of the Governor and his staff.”

Whenever Pritzker allows racing to resume, more negotiations will have to be hammered out before it returns to Arlington International Racecourse. Trainers represented by Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association are still at an impasse in contract talks with track owner Churchill Downs Inc.

Workouts for the Breeders’ Cup at Arlington International Racecourse in 2002.
Workouts for the Breeders’ Cup at Arlington International Racecourse in 2002.
Brian Kersey/AP file

Illinois’ other two existing racetracks are Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney, which features harness racing, and downstate Fairmount Park, which, like Arlington, runs thoroughbreds. The state’s sweeping gambling expansion legislation also authorized a new “racino” — a combination horse racing track and casino — for south suburban Cook County, but no proposals have left the starting gate.

Racing has been shut down across the state for two months due to the coronavirus, along with the state’s 10 casinos and 36,000-plus video gambling terminals. The Illinois Lottery is the only legal option remaining for gamblers during the pandemic.