MIAMI (AP) — Pegasus World Cup Day at Gulfstream Park was never intended to be just another routine day on the horse racing calendar. It was born to celebrate the best of everything: food, fashion and racing.
This year, it’ll celebrate normalcy.
Fans will return to Gulfstream on Saturday for the first time in nearly a year, and to Belinda Stronach that means this year’s Pegasus is already a success. No fans have been present at Gulfstream since mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic; there will be strict protocols in place to allow a much smaller than usual Pegasus crowd — capped at 1,800 this year, about one-sixth of the normal attendance.ADVERTISEMENT
“I think it’s important, because people are craving some sense of normalcy and it’s very stressful for people, their mental health, to be locked up indoors and at home,” Stronach, the president and CEO of The Stronach Group, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “And if we can provide some form of entertainment in a safe way, I think that’s very important, that people have something to look forward to.”
Pulling off a Pegasus in a pandemic is the latest entry on a list of accomplishments that Stronach can point to from the last several months. Racing kept going when some sports could not in 2020; about $11 billion was wagered on races at U.S. tracks last year, a figure consistent with the annual norms over the past decade even though attendance was zero for much of the year. Usage of the Stronach online wagering platform, 1/ST BET, is up 379% in use during the pandemic.
It doesn’t take advanced analytics to deduce how that happened: Tracks were closed, and bettors had no choice but to take wagers digital.
“Horse racing filled a void for people that wanted that kind of entertainment,” Stronach said. “Racing was introduced in a way that perhaps it wasn’t before.”
Stronach oversees no fewer than nine tracks and training centers in the U.S., including Gulfstream, Pimlico and Santa Anita. In May, two months into what was a nationwide sports shutdown, Santa Anita brought in trailers — the type movie stars use on sets — and set up a bubble where jockeys could live. The movie industry had been shut down as well, the trailers were sitting around empty, and the idea was hatched to bring jockeys to live on Santa Anita’s sprawling grounds.ADVERTISEMENT
Besides, shutting down operations was never an option. Racehorses need humans to tend to them.
“Nobody could have predicted 2020 and the impact on people’s lives, livelihoods, sports,” Stronach said. “We’re fortunate that because of our ecosystem we could continue to operate. We’re incredibly fortunate that we had good fortune on our side in a terrible time.”
Stronach was a big force in changing the medication laws in racing to make it safer for the horses — her tracks, like Gulfstream, instituted many new rules before they became industry norms. She touts the strides her group have made to lure in a younger audience and is making plans now to add a synthetic option to Gulfstream’s surfaces along with the turf and dirt courses.
She said bringing Pegasus back, despite the challenge of the pandemic, was also critical. It’s a day to celebrate, even just for a little while, after a year where such moments were in short supply.
“We have such a professional team, that I’m very proud to work with, that said, ‘We can do it,’” Stronach said. “And we’ll do everything we can to be able to sustain this sport.”