Santa Anita workers plead with county to allow racing without spectators amid coronavirus

More than 50 backstretch workers rallied outside of the Board of Supervisors’ offices in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday to request county support for a proposal to resume live horse racing at Santa Anita racetrack.

The employees argue they are already on-site daily to care for the horses stabled at the racetrack, and there would be little additional risk to host racing without spectators.

More than 750 employees live and work along the backstretch of the storied Arcadia racetrack. Those workers are at risk of losing their incomes, their housing and their health benefits if wagering doesn’t resume soon, according to Oscar de la Torre, the rally’s organizer and an advocate for the workers.

A Santa Anita backstretch worker holds up a sign outside the Board of Supervisors’ offices in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday, April 28, 2020. (Courtesy of Oscar de la Torre)

“We feel horse racing should lead the way in bringing back ‘spectatorless’ sports,” de la Torre said. “Our equine athletes don’t transmit COVID-19. Many of our workers are self-quarantined with a medical clinic on-site, and we work within 320 acres of open space, making it harder to spread COVID-19.”

The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, has proposed building controlled, on-site housing for assistant starters, jockeys and other employees who are required for racing, but not currently deemed essential. The company’s other proposals include providing protective gear for staff, limiting access to the stable areas and requiring horses to be saddled inside  a quarantine zone.

The coronavirus cannot be transmitted between horses and humans.

Currently, the company has installed hand-washing stations throughout its grounds and checks the temperatures of employees coming in for the day. There have been no reported cases of COVID-19 at the racetrack, according to track officials.

Racing continues nearby

While most venues have shut down across the state, Los Alamitos racetrack in Orange County continues to host live racing. The track, which does not have spectators, recorded an all-time record handle of $2.4 million April 24, according to Daily Racing Form.

De la Torre said it’s a positive sign that Los Alamitos, which is located in Cypress, has continued operations without any coronavirus cases.

“We’re learning a lot,” he said. “It shows that live racing can be conducted with the proper public health protocols and social distancing.”

The workers are hopeful that Los Angeles County will allow Santa Anita to reopen in mid-May as part of the first phase of its overall plan to restart the economy.

Proposal to be reviewed

In a statement, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district oversees Santa Anita, expressed gratitude for the workers’ continued care of the horses. However, she believes the county made a “difficult but necessary” decision to stop recreational and athletic activities, including horse racing.

“Santa Anita Park officials have recently submitted a proposal to hold spectator-free live racing to the county which is currently being reviewed by the Department of Public Health,” Barger said in the statement. “While this proposal is being vetted, we remain thankful for the understanding of the employees who continue to comply, alongside thousands of other businesses that remain closed as long as the pandemic persists.”

Santa Anita’s executives are optimistic and continue to have “constructive dialog with Supervisor Barger’s office on a daily basis,” according to Aidan Butler, executive director of California racing operations for The Stronach Group.

“The enormity of this public health crisis does not allow for quick decisions. We know the delay is frustrating for a lot of people, but we are definitely making substantial progress to resume racing at Santa Anita under the plan presented,” Butler said in a statement.