‘Surreal’ stakes: Ponies in Aurora prevail over pandemic

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AURORA | Bruce Seymore clicked off the sound after watching a quarter horse race on the television in his office at Arapahoe Park July 14.

Sitting behind glass just a few hundred yards from the race, the longtime general manager of the venerable horse track located near the Aurora Reservoir continues to come to grips with a new normal that “sucks.”

The horse racing landscape Seymore had come to know and love since childhood — other than what happens on the actual track — couldn’t look more different.

“It was festive, thundering hooves and all those hyperboles you could put out there,” Seymore said of the often-bustling times at the track in years past. “When you have a crowd in here and you have a really nice race, people are cheering for their horses and talking like ‘Oh, I was going to do that but I didn’t,” that kind of stuff and there is a lot of interaction. The interaction is gone for now.”

Many tracks throughout the country remain shuttered, so the fact that Arapahoe Park is even open, however, is a testament to resilience and adaptation, which has stretched the capabilities of Seymore, an admitted “control freak.”

Seymore said he had “serious doubts” about the season happening at Arapahoe Park back in March when COVID-19 galloped onto the scene and forced the cancellation of every sporting event of every kind.

Seymore considered taking the year off, but if he didn’t hold 30 days of live racing, he would lose his license and would have to start virtually from scratch next year. So he and his staff developed a plan that needed the approval of the county, state, racing commission and Gov. Jared Polis’ office.

The venue was able to plan for 41 days of live racing this summer (a slate that began June 8 and is scheduled to end Sept. 6) with three racing days per week and a few special weekend events like one coming up July 19.

It brought trainers and horses from Canada and a variety of states, including Arizona, where a good-sized contingent arrived in Colorado before the numbers blew up there.

Signage requiring masks and temperature checks is part of a package that has made everything “surreal” to Seymore.

Seymore and his staff had to do education about health practices and the need for social distancing, adapting it to horses.

“I laugh when I see ski resorts say six feet apart is about the length of a ski or a dog show says its about three mountain dogs,” he said. “For us, it’s about two horses.”

Tempering the joy of having racing is the reality that nobody save owners, trainers and support staff can watch it in person.

Wagering — an important part of the business as well — can be done remotely at venues across the state such as Havana Park in Aurora, which is operated by Arapahoe Park, but that has slowed because of the pandemic economy that has changed people’s spending habits. Not all of the 13 Off Track Betting locations (OTBs) scattered around the state have opened.

In-person revenue isn’t there to replace it.

“I’m a spectator sport and I have no spectators,” Seymore said. “From the racing side, everything is pretty normal as far as the actual participation of the horses and the jockeys and the trainers. The difference is up here, what I’m doing. I have no admission, I have no food and beverage sales or program sales. I have none of that. That’s what makes it difficult to keep things going.

We’re doing it on a wing and a prayer.”

Perched high above the Arapahoe Park track in a room filled with televisions, sound equipment and other electronic gear, things thankfully haven’t changed much for longtime public address announcer Jonathan Horowitz.

Part of the track’s audio ambiance for the past decade with his distinct delivery of racing action, Horowitz is just glad being the eyes for those that can’t be there in person.

“My feelings about what is going on is it’s enjoyable,” Horowitz said. “We’re in a time when there really aren’t a lot of sports going on and horse racing did a good job to be able to continue to operate and do it safely.

“For the horses to be able to race, for the fans to follow the sport they love and for the people that work and train with the horses so they can have an outlet and still continue to work, I think it’s been great.”

Seymore is keenly aware that each day there is a chance that something could to go wrong and force the whole racing season to come to a premature end, but he’s proud of what has happened so far.

“It something would happen — and I hope it doesn’t — we would have been successful,” he said. “We pulled off a miracle, that’s how difficult I think it was to get to where we are.”