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As Maryland horse racing tracks close to public, officials monitoring coronavirus impact on Triple Crown races

The Maryland Jockey Club on Thursday announced the closures of its raceways at Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park and Rosecroft Raceway to the public effective immediately, following state officials’ orders to cancel or postpone large public gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Jockey Club, which oversees the race tracks on behalf of The Stronach Group, the Canadian owners, said in the Thursday news release that live racing events at Laurel Park and Rosecroft Raceway will continue as scheduled but with limited personnel licensed by the Maryland Racing Commission in attendance.

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The Jockey Club joined track operators from California to New York in announcing temporary spectator bans at its facilities. The most immediate impacts will occur at Laurel Park, where racing is scheduled on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. But the empty stands won’t be as much of a shock as they might be in other sports; the average crowd for a race day at Laurel Park is about 500. Most hardcore fans engage with the sport through remote betting, which won’t be affected.

“The good thing about our business is that a lot of it is conducted online,” said Alan Foreman, longtime general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “In that respect, we have have an advantage over other sports.”

The current meet at Laurel is scheduled to continue through April before the scene shifts to Pimlico for a short meet built around the Preakness Stakes.

The bigger looming issue is the status of the 145th Preakness, scheduled to be run May 16. With crowds exceeding 130,000, the race is the most attended annual sporting event in Maryland, and it generates revenues that support the state’s racing industry for the rest of the year.

A Jockey Club spokesman said track officials are taking a wait-and-see approach with their signature event but added that the Stronach Group has created a task force to monitor the spread of the virus and stay in regular contact with the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Thursday, Churchill Downs Inc. said preparations for the May 2 Kentucky Derby are moving forward, but the company’s statement alluded to possible postponement for the first leg of the Triple Crown.

“With the event still seven weeks away, a decision will be made closer to that date, with respect to postponing the event until later in the year, using the most recent information while working with and seeking guidance from public health experts and authorities,” the statement read.

Foreman said that if a delay occurs, the operators of the three Triple Crown races will likely act in concert. “But we’re all just guessing at this point,” he said. “None of us have ever dealt with anything like this.”

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The decision to close Maryland’s tracks to spectators comes as state officials look to minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, the upper respiratory disease that has sickened more than 130,000 people worldwide and caused some 4,700 deaths. In Maryland, 12 positive cases have been confirmed as of Thursday, the same day Gov. Larry Hogan and other officials announced the two-week closure of public schools, the activation of the National Guard and the visitor restrictions at senior centers, hospitals, prisons and government buildings.

Late Wednesday, Hogan announced the first instance of a state resident who had tested positive without having traveled abroad. This, he said at a Thursday news conference, motivated the decisions behind the state’s adjustments.

The horse racing restriction follows several high-profile setbacks in the sports industry amid mounting coronavirus fears, including the cancellation of the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, the suspension of the remainder of the NBA, NHL and MLS seasons and the end of spring training for all Major League Baseball players and a two-week delay to the start of the MLB regular season.

Fans looking to watch the horse races can tune in via the 1/ST BET and Xpressbet apps, according to the jockey club.

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