Insights From the Backstretch During COVID-19
Racing’s favorite father-daughter duo discuss the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on their daily routines and social distancing in the country’s track communities
Shortly before Santa Anita Park received approval from the Los Angeles County Health Department to resume live racing on May 15 under their comprehensive plan to limit exposure, we spoke with California-based trainer Peter Eurton and his daughter Britney, an on-air host and reporter for TVG Network and NBC Sports, about how things have changed—or not, in a few cases—as local track populations care for the horses behind closed doors and under strict health and safety protocols to stop the spread of COVID-19. For them, it meant watching morning works from the distant grandstands, long phone calls with owners who miss their horses like so many others, and the determination for a responsible return to racing so we can share our sport with new fans.
Some tracks were able to continue running races, albeit without spectators, but even tracks that aren’t running races can’t really close completely. Can you explain that to us?
Peter: Race horses, like any other athlete, require daily exercise, and keeping them in a regular routine is essential to their health and wellbeing. Also, as living breathing beings, they require constant human supervision and care for survival. So, in a safe and regulated atmosphere, some tracks across the nation are able to continue to operate whether it be strictly in the morning, or in the afternoons as well.
Peter, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, can you tell us what it’s like to be on the backstretch working with and training these horses while practicing social distancing?
Peter: The first couple of weeks after I returned from Louisiana (when the protocols were initially put in place) I felt it best to be away from my employees and to keep my distance. I chose to work from the grandstand, communicating with my employees via walkie talkie as horses came on and off the track.
The last few weeks I’ve continued to approach morning workouts in the same way, watching from the grandstand, so as to give the employees their space and maintain social distancing protocols.
When at the barn, I’ll create a list of horses to be brought out and even then, we keep our distance while I’m looking them over. We’re all wearing masks, constantly washing our hands, and making sure to stay at least 6 feet apart at all times unless circumstances deem otherwise. My team is fully behind any and all protocols put in place to keep everyone safe and healthy while continuing to care for the horses.
What has stood out to you as the biggest difference between operating under normal circumstances and operating under strict health and safety protocols, restricted access to the backstretch, and without live racing? Is there any sense of business as usual?
Peter: The biggest difference, for me, is not walking back and forth with each set of horses scheduled to exercise. Under our current protocols, I like to give my employees their space as they bring horses to and from the track. With restricted access to the backside, there is also the difference of owners not being able to come out to the track to visit the horses that they love and put so much time, energy, and money into. Because of this, the communication with owners has ramped up tremendously – plenty of videos, emails, phone calls etc. to keep them as up to date as possible without them physically being able to visit or see their horses.
The biggest change or challenge in terms of the suspension of racing is that you don’t know where you’re going or what you’re training and preparing each horse for. You don’t have a point of destination in terms of a race plan, so training these horses has changed slightly. I’ve spread my works out from 7 days to an 8- or 9-day work pattern while trying to keep them at 80 to 90% fitness at all times.
Looking after the horses, though, is the business as usual. They get the same attention and care now, if not more, than they did prior to the pandemic.
How will re-opening for spectator-free racing change that?
Peter: Operationally, for the barn, things won’t change. We won’t school in the afternoon, but from an operation standpoint, things won’t change. We would do the same thing as if fans were here.
Britney, as a reporter, you’re seeing all of this from a different perspective. You even interviewed Sean Payton for TVG shortly before he tested positive for COVID-19. What do you think this moment means for horseracing?
Britney: I think we’re all living in unprecedented times right now, and the priority for everyone is to stay safe and healthy. However, I do feel the horse racing industry is in a very unique position as it is one of the few sports able to conduct business in a safe and regulated atmosphere with incredibly limited to zero person to person interaction.
With that being said, I feel horse racing has been given an opportunity. An opportunity to speak to the general public that may not know much, if anything, about horse racing and the incredible care these athletes are given. Now is the time to educate, invite, and share with others why this sport has been around for centuries and why it is supported and loved by millions around the world. There are so many people that would be willing to learn if we took the time to speak to them.
What is the general sentiment of people on the backstretch and the other horsemen still working at the tracks? And how about those who aren’t allowed to be there?
Peter: Everyone is optimistic but scared at the same time. We don’t want to lose our volume of horses and I fear California could have a shortage if owners choose to move their horses to other jurisdictions that are up and running.
When it comes to adjusting to the new protocols, everyone seems to be approaching them with open arms. We all want racing to reopen as it is the economic engine that powers everything on the backside. We would give them the kitchen sink right now — whatever it takes to make it a safe environment.
The most important thing is to get back to racing as quickly as we can while in a safe environment. It would give peace of mind to get the engine going again.
Britney: As someone who is unable to visit the backstretch and having spoken with many of my colleagues in the same boat, the general sentiment is how much we miss being around the horses. It’s been a challenge adjusting to broadcasting from home, as there’s such an energy being at the track. That being said, I’m grateful we’re still able to bring racing to those at home seeking a distraction from the very trying day to day we’re living in right now. If I know one thing to be true, it’s everyone cannot wait to get back to the track and be around these incredible athletes.
How are the horses holding up? How much have their day-to-day lives changed due to COVID-19?
Peter: When this is behind us, you’ll find a lot of fresh and happy horses that are ready to run. Their day to day hasn’t changed much, if at all. They’re exercised six days a week, fed and cared for no differently now than before. It’s truly business as usual for the horses and they seem quite happy and unfazed by it all.