December 5, 2023

Sunland Derby, Oaks canceled as racetracks’ coronavirus measures intensify

Cutting Humor won the 2019 Sunland Park Derby (c) Coady Photography/Sunland Park

In response to a request from New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, the entire Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino facility will be shuttered for three weeks, effective Monday at 1 a.m. (MT), in an effort to combat spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Thus the March 22 Sunland Derby and Oaks, scoring races for the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Oaks (G1), are canceled according to a Sunday press release from Sunland. The $700,000 Sunland Derby had drawn a field of nine — the Bob Baffert duo of Azul Coast and High Velocity; Shoplifted; As Seen on Tv; Fast Enough; Palm Springs; Sir Rick; Top Draw; and Fort Knox. Ten fillies were entered for the $200,000 Oaks, including Gingham and Comical.

Although the Sunland statement did not specify the status of the meet, scheduled to run through April 21, the El Paso Times’ Felix Chavez reports that live racing for the season is over as of the conclusion of Sunday’s card.

“The governor wants to get ahead of the curve, and reduce the bell curve,” Sunland General Manager Rick Baugh said in the video below. “And she wants to make sure that we don’t end up in a situation similar to California or New York.”

Sunland’s Director of Marketing, Ethan Linder, commented in the press release on the importance of community relations:

“For 60 years, Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino has provided non-stop entertainment for the local community. We have always promised great customer service, world-class horse racing, and a drive to be good partners with our local community as well as the horse racing world. It’s that promise that guides us as we face this difficult challenge of responding to the coronavirus.

“Our hearts go out to the people who have been affected by these unprecedented events. We appreciate the healthcare workers, local community officials, and governments around the world who are working on the front lines.”

Also on Sunday, Laurel Park and other Maryland racetracks, simulcast facilities, and casinos face closure following an emergency order from Gov. Larry Hogan for the same public health reasons, effective midnight (EDT) Monday. Daily Racing Form’s Matt Hegarty has reported that track officials were seeking guidance in hopes that the racing behind closed doors policy would meet the governor’s mandate to close to the general public. If not, Laurel and the harness track Rosecroft would have to cancel live racing.

In Kentucky, Turfway is already racing without spectators, but now other tracks’ simulcasting facilities are closing. Churchill Downs and Keeneland announced strict coronavirus measures on Sunday, joined later in the evening by Kentucky Downs and Ellis Park.

Churchill Downs Racetrack is suspending its simulcasting operations, and closing the Derby City Gaming casino, as of midnight (EDT) Sunday, for 14 days. Plans call to reopen March 30, as described in the release:

“The safety and health of our guests, team members, and the protection of our entire community remains our primary concern. With a heightened awareness of the ongoing developments of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are monitoring the situation with steadfast vigilance thanks to resources provided by the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control as well as the guidance of our local and state authorities and public health officials.

“Derby City Gaming and Churchill Downs Racetrack are committed to providing a safe and comfortable experience for our guests and look forward to returning to full operation on Monday, March 30. We will continue normal payroll for team members during the 14-day suspension and we are grateful for their commitment to our company and our guests during these uncertain times.”

Kentucky Downs is following the same schedule, closing its facility 11:59 p.m. (CDT) Sunday and aiming to resume March 30.

Keeneland is likewise closing simulcasting at the Red Mile, but until further notice. Moreover, the Lexington track is limiting access to its grounds and implementing medical screenings for those who must be on site:

“Out of an abundance of caution for the health and safety of Keeneland’s fans, horsemen and staff surrounding COVID-19, Keeneland will be closed to all non-essential guests and horsemen. Only essential employees, owners, trainers, veterinarians, blacksmiths and stable workers will be allowed entry. Screening checkpoints will be set up at Gates 1, 2, 3 and at the Rice Road barn entrance to monitor those seeking access to Keeneland. Each checkpoint will require a temperature check. Only those with a temperature less than 100.5 degrees and showing no symptoms of COVID-19 will be granted access. Persons permitted to enter will receive an armband granting access for only that day….

“Thank you for your understanding as Keeneland, the State of Kentucky and the U.S. government work together to do everything in our power to keep our community healthy and safe as the situation continues to evolve.”

Tours of Keeneland are banned through April 14, and no visitors are allowed at the Shop or Library until further notice. The April Sale, slated for April 7, was already canceled. The general office and hiring center are also closed until further notice, but the track is encouraging job seekers to apply online in case “normal operations” resume later in the Spring Meet. Live racing is set to begin April 2 but without spectators at least through April 11, when the policy will be revisited.

Ellis Park is closing all public areas including simulcasting, Historical Horse Racing Gaming, and its restaurants indefinitely.

“The unprecedented circumstances we are all facing as the result of the nationwide pandemic is something we decided to address by minimizing the potential for infection at Ellis Park,” General Manager Jeff Inman said in a statement. “We look forward to resuming full operations when we are advised it is safe to do so.”

An ongoing list of tracks racing behind closed doors, or canceling, is available at