The Main Track: Florida Racing Community Battles Hurricane Irma

The Life
A horse in the walking ring at Gulfstream Park. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Welcome to another edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track. Each Tuesday in this space we spotlight the most meaningful story of the past week, detailing news that stands out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it generates.

Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next Tuesday’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.

As for this week, our feature involves another week when a part of the country endured a catastrophic storm.

Just one week after Hurricane Harvey ravaged Texas and Louisiana, Florida faced the fury of Hurricane Irma, which cut a wide swath of death and destruction from the Caribbean through the Sunshine State.

Mindful of how torrential rain and gale force winds turned Houston into a disaster area, Floridians from all walks of life spent much of last week bracing for the storm and doing whatever was needed to protect themselves and their loved ones from harm.

The horse racing industry in Florida was not exempt from the fear that gripped the state last week as residents saw images of the destruction caused by Irma as the deadly storm swept through Caribbean islands. With the state home to one of the nation’s premier racetracks in Gulfstream Park as well as a small army of farms and training centers, a legion of horsemen in Florida as well as so many others up and down the East Coast with stables or homes in Florida, spent long, stress-filled days frantically trying to cope with the situation.

With the storm expected to hit Miami particularly hard during the weekend, on Wednesday, Gulfstream Park, located in Hallandale Beach, about 20 miles north of Miami, announced it was canceling racing from Thursday to Sunday.

“Obviously, our first priority is the safety of our patrons and our equine athletes,” said P.J. Campo, general manager of Gulfstream Park and vice president of racing for The Stronach Group, in announcing the closings. “Horsemen are being given the option to keep their horses at Gulfstream, Gulfstream Park West or move to our training facility at Palm Meadows in Palm Beach.”

Horsemen quickly scrambled to find safe havens for their horses. A Gulfstream Park official told Thoroughbred Daily News about 750 Thoroughbreds were moved from the grounds in advance of the hurricane’s arrival.

“Some are leaving and others are going to stay,” trainer David Fawkes told Thoroughbred Daily News. “A lot of people who I train for said the storm is going to hit the Ocala area, too, so they don’t see how much there is to gain by leaving. You could put a lot of time and effort into leaving and wind up in the same situation. We’ve been through this before, with Hurricane Wilma, and nothing happened to the horses. It was a huge storm but all the horses were fine. For the horses that stay here, we’ll do everything we can for them and hope for the best.”

Though the Miami area avoided the brunt of the storm, Irma shifted direction and pummeled the Gulf Coast with cities such as Tampa, where Tampa Bay Downs is currently closed, battered.

That did not mean the Miami area went unscathed. It endured more than 11 inches of rain, winds of nearly 100 mph and thousands of homes were damaged. As of Monday night, about 12 million Florida residents had no electrical power and there were at least 11 deaths attributed to the hurricane. But that did not compare to the carnage in the Caribbean where at least 38 died due to the hurricane’s fury.

At Gulfstream Park, Campo said the track weathered the storm “very well.”

“First of all, people and horses are always our first priorities, and everyone is safe,” Campo said on Monday. “The horses are all well, and those who work on the backstretch and live in our dormitories are all safe. Over the past two years, we have taken precautions to help our facility by installing a flood retaining wall and pump stations, and they worked. The stables were not flooded.

“Except for some minor damage to roof shingles on our older barns, we’re ready to go. We are waiting until Saturday to resume racing because we have to wait for outside resources and utilities in the South Florida area like power, gas, and clean-up to catch up.”

With the recovery already underway, the weeks ahead in South Florida and the rest of the state promise to be trying as once again a region tries to move forward after enduring catastrophic damage.

It’s been a brutal two weeks, but hopefully, after so much grief and suffering, next week’s major newsmaker will be somebody other than Mother Nature.

The Also-Eligible List

Here are some of the other stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry:

Miss Temple City shows grit in Ladies Turf Stakes

Oscar Nominated ekes out Kentucky Turf Cup score

TOBA owners award to Klaravich, Lawrence

Ellis Park reports record handle

Former Florida HBPA executive Stirling des at 72

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