Cooperstown Crier - Your Source for Hometown News - Cooperstown, Baseball Hall of Fame

May 16, 2013

Herpes virus brings harness racing to a halt

By Michelle Miller The Cooperstown Crier
Cooperstown Crier

---- — I’ve been going to harness horse race tracks my entire life. My family has been in the business for years.

I remember my grandmother packing all of us kids (my brother, cousins and I) into her vehicle and heading to Vernon Downs. That is the closest and most convenient track to get to. We always had a contest to see who could find the “big ball” first. This was what we all called the big water tower that could be seen miles before getting to the track. 

I’ve never really been interested in the betting aspect of it all, although as kids we would bring our pennies and all chose our favorite before the start of each race. I would generally choose the dark black ones or the ones with the funniest names. My dad used to tell me to look for a sparkle in their eyes. 

I am not much of a risk taker or gambler, so I have only bet a couple dollars a few times. I have found I am luckier if I keep my money in my pocket. In fact, I once chose the winner of all 12 races one night (my brother as my witness). Had I bet, I guarantee I would have jinked those horses. 

Vernon Downs was recently closed because of an outbreak of the equine herpes virus. Four horses stabled on the race track grounds were known to be infected with one having to be euthanized. No horses were permitted to ship in or out until the Department of Agriculture and Markets determined that the infected horses stopped showing symptoms. Barn No. 4 and barn No. 2 at Vernon Downs are under strict quarantine, and the only persons permitted to enter these barns are horse caretakers assigned to those barns. Horses in these barns are prohibited from racing or training on the track.

Equine Herpes Virus Type 1 is a viral infection which can have serious, sometimes fatal health effects in horses, but does not affect people.

I had only been to the track once since it opened in April and was gearing up to go try my hand at racing under saddle (a hybrid of harness and Thoroughbred racing) the day after the Department of Agriculture and Markets implemented a 28-day quarantine period. That plan for training was put to a sudden halt.

Not only were my plans put on hold, but racing at the track was no longer an option. 

And since my brother had been there with his horses, he could not take them to race at other tracks for they had potentially been exposed. 

I am happy to report that the state Gaming Commission allowed horse racing to resume at Vernon Downs on Friday, May 10 with unaffected horses that are currently on the grounds of the racetrack. The gaming commission said no other horses at Vernon Downs or any New York racetrack have been reported to have the virus.

The track has announced that it will continue with live racing on Friday and Saturdays, but there will be no racing on Thursday during the month of May. However, racing will be restricted to those horses currently stabled in quarantine at Vernon Downs, excluding the horses in secured quarantine within the stable area. According to the track website, all horses racing will have their temperature taken prior to entering the paddock and those horses with a temperature in excess of 101.5 will be denied entry to the paddock and excluded from competition.

This is good news for those who stable their horses at the track. Not so much for my family, which ships in horses from the farm. 

Luckily my family has been able to race at Tioga Downs. According to Vernon Downs’ website horsemen were given the opportunity to travel to Tioga Downs or Meadowlands Racetrack, both owned and operated by the same man (Jeff Gural) as Vernon Downs. However, there are stipulations that have to be met. Upon arrival at the track, the shipper must produce an official health certificate current within 72 hours and each horse will be subject to an examination by a track veterinarian.   

My father has also informed me that Saratoga Harness track has since been taking entries for those horses that were racing at Vernon. Monticello Raceway, another track we enter horses at, has yet to allow this. I am not really sure why some tracks are allowing these horses to race, and not others. 

Those who have raced at Vernon Downs from April 19 through May 3 are being asked to take the temperature twice a day of the horses raced and if the temperature is higher than 101.5 a veterinarian should be notified immediately. 

For all the betters out there, the track is open for simulcasting on the regular schedule throughout the quarantine period.

According to a news release from the track, “The quarantine procedures are subject to change as both the Department of Agriculture and Markets and the New York State Gaming Commission continue to monitor the situation at Vernon Downs closely and may modify restrictions based on conditions on-site and/or new information.”