Sports

Last year, the Kentucky Oaks was a pretty exciting race. Right out of the gate, a horse named Positive Spirit lost her rider. Nearly immediately, Serengeti Empress took the lead and ended up winning the race. It was the first Oaks win for her trainer, Tom Amoss.

But this year, Amoss isn’t at Churchill Downs like he would normally be. He’s in New Orleans, training his horses at the Fair Grounds Race Track, waiting until he can bring them up to Louisville for Churchill Downs’ spring meet. Though the dates for the meet haven’t been set yet, the Churchill Downs stables will open on May 11.

This leads to a lot of uncertainty for the industry, after a tumultuous year marked by a Derby disqualification and horse deaths at tracks like Santa Anita dominating the news.

For one, Amoss said it’s hard to know which horses will even be Derby or Oaks contenders by September.

These races are both for three-year-old horses, though the Oaks is reserved for fillies only. And because a horse’s age is just calculated by the year they’re born, any horse born in 2017 will be eligible…regardless of whether the races happen in May or September.

But:

“A lot can happen in a horse’s development from May of their three-year-old year to fall of their three-year-old year,” Amoss said.

Take a horse called Arrogate. When the Kentucky Derby was run in 2016, Arrogate didn’t qualify…and in fact had never won a race. But by the end of August, the three-year-old won the Travers Stakes. And in November, he had beaten Derby winner California Chrome in the Breeder’s Cup, and was widely accepted as the best racehorse in his age group.

But the big question for Amoss is what horse racing will look like after the pandemic. For one — will owners keep paying to train racehorses if there’s nowhere to race them?

Horse racing has always been somewhat of a gamble…for every champion, there are a ton of horses who don’t win the big purses. And it’s expensive…beyond the initial cost of buying a horse, Amoss said it costs $4,000 to $5,000 a month to keep a horse in training.

“And with that in mind, any owners are examining their investments and trying to make a decision as to whether those horses should go to a farm and just get some R&R until we’re more certain about racing’s future or just sell the investment to someone else who’s willing to take the chance,” he said.

On the other end of the economic spectrum, there’s the workforce. Amoss employs about 45 people for his stable. Under him, they’re usually working to train about 70 horses…but now, amid the uncertainty, they’re down to 61. And while he’s confident racing will return eventually, he’s nervous about whether the workforce will still be there if he and others have to lay workers off.

At this point, Amoss said he’s very much still in limbo. He didn’t get funding in the first round of the federal Paycheck Protection Program; now, he’s applied for the second round. If that’s unsuccessful, he may have to cut some jobs.

“It’s very, very difficult to try to take a stance in the ‘going back to work’ vs the health of our nation,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s a right answer, but I battle with it every day.”

There have been confirmed cases of COVID-19 at other racetracks around the country…two workers at Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky tested positive, and more than two dozen at Belmont Park in New York. But at this point, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Amoss’ workers, despite New Orleans being a hotspot for the virus.

In the meantime, Amoss is training his horses in New Orleans, and his workers are undergoing daily temperature checks to ensure they don’t start showing symptoms of COVID-19. He’ll bring the horses up to Louisville by May 11, when Churchill Downs reopens. But on Saturday, what would have been Derby Day, the backside will be empty. And instead, horses will be running in Hot Springs, Arkansas for the Arkansas Derby.

“For the first time in horse racing history, without sounding sacrilegious in horse racing terms, the Kentucky Derby will really become the Arkansas derby the first Saturday of may of this year,” Amoss said.

And Amoss won’t be at Churchill Downs. Instead, he’ll be home in New Orleans, providing TV commentary on the Arkansas Derby from afar.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.