The walk from the winner’s circle to the jockeys’ room at Gulfstream Park requires victorious riders to weave their way through clots of fans and gamblers, often stopping to sign autographs and pose for pictures.
But the only human life in proximity of jockey John Velazquez after the Hall of Fame rider guided Golden Ami to victory in Friday’s fourth race were two maintenance workers cleaning self-betting terminals with disinfectant wipes.
“Very strange,” said Velazquez, a two-time winner of the Kentucky Derby after posing for the obligatory winner’s circle photo with the filly. “It’s a little bit sad.”
As professional sports in South Florida and throughout the country came to a halt due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, Gulfstream and most of the nation’s other race tracks continued to operate. It was business as usual, save for one notable difference. There were no fans.
To help prevent the further spread of the virus, spectators were not allowed to attend.
The betting windows were shuttered. The large simulcasting room that on most days is filled with bettors staring up at a bank of monitors displaying odds and races throughout the country was dark. The TVs were blank. The track installed temporary fencing around the paddock walking ring to block the view of passersby. Other than a handful of trainers, grooms and horse owners allowed to be there, the grandstand apron, where railbirds congregate to cheer on horses in the stretch, was lifeless and silent.
Track announcer Pete Aiello’s race calls were broadcast as usual over the public address system, echoing off the empty seats.
“It’s really bizarre to walk around the race track and see no customers,” said Aidan Butler, chief strategy officer for the Stronach Group, Gulfstream’s parent company. “But it seems like we’re the only sport running at the moment.”
Of all sports, thoroughbred racing might be the best equipped to sustain business during a pandemic. That’s because tracks such as Gulfstream derive less than 10 percent of their betting handle from on-site patrons. The vast majority of wagers are placed from afar, with many enthusiasts preferring to play the ponies from the comfort of their own living rooms. All that is required is a laptop, an online betting account, and a TV.
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The track handled nearly $1 million in bets — all of it coming from elsewhere — on Friday’s first race alone. While the Hallandale Beach track allowed its casino to remain open to the public, the turnout was sparse. Monitors that normally display horse racing were purposely turned off to discourage racing fans from showing up.
“We’re lucky in horse racing in that the customers don’t necessarily come to the track,” Butler said. “They can watch it online and stream it. So we’ve still got a viable product.”
Gulfstream’s ban on spectators is indefinite, and expectations are that it’s biggest race — the Florida Derby for Kentucky Derby hopefuls on March 28 — will be held in front of an empty grandstand.
“With the Florida Derby, we are 99.9 percent certain we’re not going to have people there,” Butler said. “If things change, then we want the ability to do it. But [without fans] it won’t be the day it was.”
The vibe on Friday was strangely muted. As horses thundered down the stretch, the only sounds were those of the hooves striking the surface and jockeys chirping into the ears of their mounts for additional encouragement. There was no cheering.
“It really is strange,” said racing analyst Caton Bredar, an on-air host for TVG, a channel dedicated to horse racing. “You kind of knew going into it that it was going to be like this. But, still. Parking was absolutely no problem. You walk in and there’s no one here.”
With a container of Lysol wipes at her side, Bredar conducted her race-by-race analysis in a booth set up alongside the homestretch, just like always. Only there were no spectators in the background. At one point, Bredar said, two of TVG’s production assistants jokingly mimicked the fans who would normally be on hand.
“It was funny because they walked up and did impressions of fans,” Bredar said. “They were saying, ‘Hey! Who do you like in the third?’ ”
Bredar said she noticed that even the horses seemed to be acting differently.
“The horses kind of sense it,” Bredar said. “I think they pick up on what the people around them are feeling. I’ve noticed that they’ve been very calm. You really haven’t had any delays with horses acting up.”
But Velazquez said the adrenaline felt just the same, even without spectators cheering for or against them.
“To tell you the truth, once you get on top of the horse, the adrenline is there,” said Velazquez, who has won more than 7,000 races in his career. “That will to win, that’s what gives you the thrill. Obviously, though, the fans make it fun.”
Said Irad Ortiz, the track’s leading jockey and last year’s national champion rider: “It’s weird. Sometimes when you’re coming down the stretch, you can hear the crowd. But not today. Today, nothing. It’s weird. But I think it’s the best for everybody.”