Ohio’s thoroughbred horse racing running on empty

horse racing
Horses run at Thistledown race track, in Cleveland, Ohio, in this undated photo. The horse racing industry is stuck in limbo until the governor allows racing again. (Photo courtesy of Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association)

If this was a normal year, there would be no horses at Mahoning Valley Race Course by now.

The track in Austintown, Ohio, usually closes down near the end of April. Thoroughbred horse racing picks up at Thistledown race track in Cleveland and Belterra Park near Cincinnati, through the summer and fall.

The last race was held at Mahoning Valley March 18, said Dave Basler, executive director of the Ohio chapter of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

Since then, 800 thoroughbred horses and nearly 100 grooms have remained at the track, stuck in a sort of limbo until racing can resume.

Casinos and racetracks were closed March 13 by Gov. Mike DeWine’s order banning mass gatherings. Races were held at Mahoning Valley without spectators, until the Ohio State Racing Commission ordered racing canceled March 20. The cancelation was extended through May 15.

“It’s problematic,” Basler said. “The longer this goes on without revenue for our guys, it becomes a difficult situation. We rely on racing to make money and be able to take care of the horses.”

Stuck in place

There are three thoroughbred racetracks in Ohio. Mahoning Valley Race Course is open through the winter. Racing there starts in October and runs through April.

Once that track closes, Thistledown opens, and horses and their human entourages move there to train and race. Horses also go to Belterra Park once it opens for the season.

When everything shut down, the modern-day nomads that rely on racetracks being open year round in Ohio were worried they may become homeless. Basler said there are about 94 grooms living in dormitories on the backside of the track at Mahoning Valley.

“A lot of our guys, particularly in the eastern part of the state, they go from one track to another and don’t have their own farms,” Basler said.

The Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the group that supports the state’s thoroughbred racing industry, came to an agreement with Penn National, the owners of Mahoning Valley, to keep the backside of the track open even though racing was canceled.

The association is paying for the cost of stabling, training and housing through May 31. Under normal circumstances, the horses would pay for themselves by bringing in business from racing and those people staying in dorms pay a small monthly fee.

In all, there are still about 300 people working at the track on an almost daily basis, Basler said. That includes grooms, trainers, exercise riders and jockeys, as well as a maintenance crew and security caring for the track and facility.

There are 18 barns and nearly 1,000 stalls, so things are spread out enough to keep everyone safely distanced from one another, Basler said. There have been no positive cases of COVID-19 within the people working at Mahoning Valley. For those living there, Basler said they reminded them to limit interactions in common areas.

A waiting game

It’s business as usual for the horsemen and horses at Mahoning Valley, even with no races scheduled. That’s part of the problem. Horses need daily training and exercise. They need grain, hay and straw.

“They’re professional athletes,” Basler said. “They need to get out and get their exercise.”

Expenses for horse owners are still what they were before, but now there’s no income. They’re looking at a minimum of two months without racing, Basler said.

Trainers are paid a day rate by horse owners, who usually pay for their horses through race winnings. Trainers then take care of everything the horse needs, including hiring exercise riders and grooms and paying for hay, grain and straw. Some trainers own their own horses, eliminating the middleman, but also taking on more of the risk.

Basler said if there is still no racing in June, some people will have to make hard decisions. Horses may be sold, retired or put out on pasture to lower costs.

“There have been trainers that quit training horses during this to save money, so you don’t have exercise costs, not knowing when we’re going to be racing again,” said trainer Julie Pappada.

While that saves money in the short term, horses won’t be fit to race if and when race tracks open back up.

Pappada and her husband are training 20 horses at Mahoning Valley.  She’s already had to lay off some of her employees.

Some trainers have applied for Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program loans and other programs without much success, she said. Trainers are self-employed, so it limits their options for assistance.

She worries about what may happen to some of these horses that are given up. Horse rescues may be overrun with animals. She said she hopes no horses end up in bad situations because of the hardship owners are facing.

Pappada said she and other trainers tune in for DeWine’s daily press conferences, hoping for some kind of answer or clue about when racing can resume.

“Right now we’re at the governor’s mercy,” Pappada said. “It’s bad not having a time frame, not knowing when we’ll be getting back to racing.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)


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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.


  1. Ohio lost out on a big boost for everyone involved in the horse industry. Look at the results WRD and Fonner Park have had as they race through these times. Yes, they run without spectators but the lively hood of the industry is being maintained.


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