As if the local horse racing industry could not take any more body blows, the decision to close the local horse racing industry from March 28 has thrown the sport into a tailspin.
T&T, like most other racing jurisdictions, decided to close doors completely rather than continue racing behind closed doors. While the latter brings with it a certain amount of risk and controversy, it was never a real option for smaller countries such as ours. Jamaica tried that for maybe one racing day before realising that it was not feasible.
It remains something an enigma how Gulfstream Park has continued to host live horse racing, albeit with no spectators. This is somewhat reflective of the stance taken by the Republic Governor of the State, who seemingly shares many common views with the US president. No one is immune from the virus and social distancing should mean social distancing.
As we talk on social distancing, the terrible racing news last week of the passing of legendary jockey Venice “Pappy” Richards send massive shock waves all over this country and left many in tears. And a number trying to distance themselves from blame. What made it worst were the reported conditions that Richards left this world in, given all of his immense contribution to the sport.
We will all await the explanations from Mr David Kangaloo, the chairman of the T&T Racing Authority (TTRA) on why some of the funds from the –Benevolent Fund – was not used to assist him and from the Arima Race Club (ARC), who could not afford to pay him, even though they have been without an accountant for months.
The issue as it relates to COVID-19 for the ARC, however, is what happens next and what happens when the industry can re-open. Will, it re-open? We have already seen numerous reports of an exodus of horses from the paddock which suggests that the horse population has already reduced substantially.
Based on the restrictions being placed on the activities of the trainers, jockeys, exercise riders and horses, it is highly likely that any decision to resume will require some built-in lead time for the horses to be properly readied for their next races.
When we consider the movement of farriers, feedstock providers, and other support service providers are likely to be equally limited during this period, it is difficult to envisage racing resuming within anything less than two months of the lifting of social distancing restrictions.
This has serious implications for the many individuals who are employed by the sport since the question arises as to how their employment is to be maintained.
Those most affected are likely to be the jockeys whose income is based on a percentage of their mount’s winnings, a riding fee and an exercise fee. The third of those might continue to the extent trainers can maintain some level of exercise for their charges but it is sure to be much reduced as, in this uncertain period, it makes more sense for trainers to ease back on their charges’ preparations.
The grooms are also likely to be affected but primarily by the reduction in the number of horses in the paddock with a trickle-down effect on the number of grooms required. While trainers will continue to earn training fees, fewer horses will translate into lower fees and there will be no per cent of earnings to look forward to.
Owners are likely to be least affected since they were already not being paid any winnings of their charges going back to the middle of last year. The fate of the staff of the ARC is unknown though it can be expected that those who primarily are employed on race days will also be without some sort of income at the moment.
Like the country, the industry is ill-equipped at this point to provide any meaningful support to any of those who find themselves with substantially reduced or no income. The uncertainty over how long this situation will persist must only be adding to the anguish of the many affected families.
One is left to wonder whether we, therefore, have the quintessential unsolvable problem.
So many people for whom income lost can never be recovered. So many people that will now depend on the generosity of others for their daily survival. Underneath the bluster, however, Trinbagonians are generous people and it is unlikely that however reduced one’s standard of living may become, anyone will be reduced to living in poverty.
Now is certainly the time for all of those who can in the industry, to come together and do, without waiting on the government (Betting Levy Board - BLB) to step in. They are most probably unable to do so to the extent truly required.
Again in closing, we must pay our respect to Venice “Pappy” Richards who passed away on March 30. Pappy, as he was fondly known, was one of the best jockeys to ride in the Caribbean ever and will forever be considered as an icon of the turf. He practised his art primarily between T&T and Barbados and enjoyed tremendous success in both countries.
His name will forever be associated with some of the great horses of Caribbean racing and some of the many Hall of Famers who passed away before him. A gentleman off the track, Pappy spent the last few years of his life in T&T and was always willing to share his knowledge and experience with anyone who so desired. May his soul rest in peace!