Coronavirus can’t keep fans from going to Nebraska racetrack

AP Photo
1 Comment

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Jerry Moritz has been attending horse races at Fonner Park regularly since 1970 and almost every day in recent years.

The track in central Nebraska was one of the few sporting venues in the country open to fans Saturday, and the 73-year-old from Grand Island wasn’t going to let concerns over the new coronavirus stop him from going.

“If we had a dozen people in the hospital here and two or three died, then I would probably back off,” Moritz said, sipping beer out of a plastic cup. “I feel like some people probably got it and don’t even know it and are already over it.”

No cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Hall County, where Fonner Park is located, and that was part of the reason track CEO Chris Kotulak decided to allow fans for the weekend racing programs.

Kotulak said the clubhouse and other viewing areas are being cleaned with increased frequency. Leaflets reminding employees and guests to practice good hygiene were distributed on counters and tabletops in the clubhouse and other viewing areas. As an added precaution, Kotulak visited the jockeys’ room Saturday morning to make sure none of the riders was experiencing any symptoms associated with the new coronavirus.

Later, jockeys voted not to race because of dangerous track conditions caused by a snowstorm that moved through the area. After it was announced that racing was canceled, about 50 people stayed at Fonner Park to wager on races simulcast from other tracks.

Fonner has been a major economic driver in Grand Island, population 40,000, since opening in 1954. The track employs 60 full-time workers and more than 200 seasonal part-timers.

Kotulak said he would have no problem with closing the races to fans if advised to do so by health officials.

Joe Brown of Grand Island, at a table in the enclosed grandstand doing some handicapping with a friend, said he wasn’t overly concerned about getting sick even though he’s 63 and has underlying health issues.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the virus.

“I’m that part of the population that wants to worry about it,” he said. “But I kind of figured I haven’t heard of anything around Grand Island yet, so maybe now will be the last time we get out in a group like this and have some fun.”

His friend, Ron Tenski, said his wife encouraged him to enjoy a day at the races, and he also got the green light from his doctor.

“I had my physical yesterday,” said Tenski, 68, of Grand Island, “and he said don’t be afraid to be out and about.”

Other tracks across the country continued running races with no fans in the stands. Laurel Park in Maryland was business as usual in the paddock and on the track, and announcer Dave Rodman’s calls echoed off the empty building.

Someone could be overheard in the paddock saying, “It’s so weird when they’re running and nobody’s cheering.”

Jockey Forest Boyd, who won the day’s second race, said she didn’t notice horses handling the situation any differently. She was able to keep her focus as a rider.

“It’s a little eerie,” Boyd said. “But luckily we’re all out here doing our job and keeping the economy going.”

Instead of the roar of fans, individual owners and trainers could be heard yelling for their horses while races were underway. Trainer Lacey Gaudet slammed the rail in joy after jockey Alex Cintron rode Jefazo to a victory.

“It’s very weird not having fans out here,” Gaudet said. “I think it’s going to be a learning curve, I guess. I don’t really know. It’s the first time that we’ve really had to deal with this.”

Jason Servis, trainer of Maximum Security, pleads guilty to drugging his horses

1 Comment

NEW YORK – Trainer Jason Servis, whose horse Maximum Security was the 3-year-old champion in 2019, pleaded guilty Friday to federal charges involving a widespread scheme to drug horses.

The 65-year-old New Jersey-based trainer faces four years in prison when he is sentenced next May in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. He was the last defendant facing charges in the scheme, and now 23 of the 31 individuals charged have pleaded guilty.

Servis pleaded guilty in connection with his role in the distribution of adulterated and misbranded drugs intended for use on horses in his stable.

“Servis’ conduct represents corruption at the highest levels of the racehorse industry,” Damian Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement. “As a licensed racehorse trainer, Servis was bound to protect the horses under his care and to comply with racing rules designed to ensure the safety and well-being of horses and protect the integrity of the sport.”

Servis’ attorney, Rita Glavin, did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

Servis was charged in 2020 after a wide-ranging investigation into doping in the horse racing industry. Racing authorities suspended his trainer’s license.

Maximum Security finished first in the 2019 Kentucky Derby but was disqualified for interference during the running of the race. The colt finished first in the $10 million Saudi Cup shortly before Servis’ arrest in March 2020. Saudi officials later withheld the winner’s share of the purse, citing Servis’ arrest and indictment.

“I don’t take any solace in other peoples misery, actually quite the opposite I feel some empathy for them,” Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Graham Motion tweeted, “but the reality is that those of us who were beaten by Jason Service’s (sic) horses have little to show for it other than losing money, owners and horses due to his success.”

Another New Jersey-based trainer, Jorge Navarro, is serving a five-year prison sentence after pleading guilty a year ago. Eleven of the defendants were trainers and seven were veterinarians.

Servis is the brother of trainer John Servis, who trained Smarty Jones to victories in the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness before the colt lost his Triple Crown bid in the Belmont.

Irad Ortiz sets single-season record with 77th stakes win

Getty Images
0 Comments

NEW YORK – Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. earned his record 77th single-season North American stakes victory when he guided Dr B to victory in the $200,000 Go for Wand at Aqueduct.

The 30-year-old native of Puerto Rico broke the old mark of 76 set by the late Hall of Fame rider Garrett Gomez in 2007.

“This is great. Amazing feeling,” said Ortiz, Jr., who won the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey from 2018-20. “Gomez did it in 2007 and he was a great rider, one of the best in the game. I’m so happy just to be a part of this. I love this sport.”

Ortiz Jr. won the Belmont Stakes with Mo Donegal in June to go with Breeders’ Cup victories in the Juvenile, Filly & Mare Sprint and Sprint. He also earned nine other Grade 1 wins in New York, including Life Is Good in the Woodward and Whitney and Nest in the Alabama and Coaching Club Oaks. He won riding titles at Belmont’s spring-summer meet and Saratoga’s summer meet.

Ortiz Jr. leads North American riders with 304 overall victories this year. His purse earnings totaled over $35.8 million going into Saturday’s races, which already surpassed his single-season record of $34.1 million in 2019.