Aside from missing the loud roar of the crowd, veteran jockey Mike Smith has had no trouble staying locked in the minute he finds himself at the gate for a big race these days.
As for the other minutes throughout the days since the coronavirus pandemic began, nothing has been normal for Smith and jockeys from all over the country.
From the required COVID-19 testing to quarantining to social distancing requirements in jockey rooms, a jockey’s daily routine is in disarray.
Smith, who is bypassing this year’s rescheduled Preakness Stakes because the horse he rode to a fourth-place finish at the Kentucky Derby, Honor A.P., was injured and retired, said being unable to regularly ride in the higher stake races around the country has proved to be the biggest change.
“Most of my business is traveling,” said Smith, a California-based jockey who has won seven Triple Crown races, including two at the Preakness. “Every state has a different protocol — New York is different from Kentucky and Kentucky is different from California — so it’s been really difficult as far as being able to get in and out of places. A lot of time, you go into a place and you can’t come back to your own home course, so it’s been really tough. For me, it’s crushed my business.”
For local jockey Trevor McCarthy, who rides out of Laurel Park, the pandemic hit even closer to home when he tested positive for COVID 19 on Aug. 11.
Diligent with his recovery plan, the 26-year-old Wilmington, Delaware, native was able to overcome the symptoms in a week’s time and return to riding Aug. 27.
“As jockeys, we’re just so fit and athletic, and our bodies are used to take a little bit of a beating because we’re working six and sometimes seven days a week during the summer time, so I think with having COVID I was just able to fight it off,” McCarthy said. “It seems that way with other athletes as well — that is hasn’t affected them too much, both in our sport and other sports. That healthy fitness mentality that some people have has really helped in the long run with the COVID-19 virus.”
Upon his healthy return, McCarthy has run across the same problems other jockeys are dealing with. Accustomed to riding six and sometimes seven days a week during the summer months, he has mostly been limited to the three days offered at Laurel. A winner of over 1,500 races and Maryland’s leading rider in four of his 10-year career, he has posted three wins since his return.
During normal summer seasons, McCarthy described his work like a traveling circus show, traveling to quality racetracks throughout the Northeast.
Now, he’s mostly limited to only riding at Laurel during the pandemic.
“We’re committed to be at one place and only ride three days a week here at Laurel, which is a big bummer because the horses travel as do we travel with them. This summer, we haven’t been able to travel with the horses like we’d want to,” he said. “It kind of has it’s pros and cons, though. You’re losing opportunities because you’re not able to go out and ride those horses at other racetracks, but you’re getting an opportunity due to guys not being able to come ride their horses [at Laurel].”
McCarthy will be able to ride at Pimlico during Preakness Week, which opened Thursday, and he’s excited by the prospects. Strict guidelines will come first and throughout the three days of racing.
All jockeys intending to ride from Oct. 1-3 must arrive at the Pimlico drive-up COVID-19 testing site not later than 72 hours before the first race date. Post testing also will take place and any out-of-state jockeys must self isolate until notified of test results. Jockey room attendance is limited to essential personnel only, and jockeys must wear gloves and masks at certain times.
Terry Meyocks, national manager of the Jockeys' Guild, said it’s important to continue to listen to the latest scientific developments to make sure everybody remains safe.
“It’s a trying time for everybody, for our entire industry and we’ve tried to work with all the racetracks,” he said. “From early March when we first became aware of it to now, there have been probably over 50 or 60 race tracks running and, for the most part, there’s been different protocols at each track. I understand they’re trying to protect their track and livelihood and stuff like that.”
Smith can’t wait for the day he sees the packed grandstands and deafening noise that comes with them.
“You miss playing in front of a crowd and feeding off it,” he said.
“At the Derby, it didn’t have that feel, that electricity in the air with all the people and I’m sure it’s going to be the same over there in Baltimore with no fans. If you ask anybody that competes, part of the whole thing is playing in front of your crowd and people rooting for you. I even miss the guys booing at me.”
145TH PREAKNESS STAKES
At Pimlico Race Course
Oct. 3, 6:45 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4 (coverage begins at 4:30 p.m.)
Post; Horse; Jockey; Odds
1; Excession; Sheldon Russell; 30-1
2; Mr. Big News; Gabriel Saez; 12-1
3; Art Collector; Brian Hernandez Jr.; 5-2
4; Swiss Skydiver; Robby Albarado; 6-1
5; Thousand Words; Florent Geroux; 6-1
6; Jesus' Team; Jevian Toledo; 30-1
7; NY Traffic; Horacio Karamanos; 15-1
8; Max Player; Paco Lopez; 15-1
9; Authentic; John Velazquez; 9-5
10; Pneumatic; Joe Bravo; 20-1
11; Liveyourbeastlife; Trevor McCarthy; 30-1