The daily schedule of horse trainer Hosea Williams hasn’t changed much since COVID-19 started to batter Illinois’ economy. He still rises at 4 a.m. each morning and heads for the stables of Cicero’s Hawthorne Race Course where his six Standardbreds await their daily exercise.
There is one difference, though. Once the weekend comes, there will be no racing — and thus, even as his expenses mount, no income.
“I’ve got a payroll — not a huge one, but I pay three people every week,” Williams said. “I will be OK. But you’ve got people there who are not OK.”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order issued to combat the coronavirus outbreak has hammered many trades, but none more than the equine industry. From racetracks to trail rides, many who make a living through horses have seen their incomes dry up almost entirely.
But unlike other businesses, horse owners say, they can’t merely hunker down and wait for things to get better.
“If you’ve got a movie theater, you shut it down and put a closed sign in the window,” said Gerald Hansen, a Monee-based owner and trainer of harness horses. “With horses, they’ve got to eat every day. They’ve got to be worked every day. If this thing goes more than a month, we’re in deep trouble.”
Hawthorne began its season the second week of February but got in only five weekends of harness racing before it had to close. No racing means no betting, no purses and no way to offset the roughly $1,500 in monthly expenses each horse racks up.
The track briefly planned to keep racing without fans in the stands — betting would have continued online — but shut down entirely after Pritzker limited the size of public gatherings.
About 600 horses are still boarding at the track, Hawthorne spokesman Jim Miller said, and the backstretch workers who care for them are still there too. He said the Cicero school district, which many of the workers’ children attend, is providing meals for the kids.
The stay-at-home order runs through April 7, meaning the track will be idle for at least two more weekends. But Pritzker has suggested the order could be extended, a thought that unnerves the harness racing community.
“As this goes on, two weeks, three weeks, we could be OK,” said Tony Somone of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association. “But as it hits four weeks, five weeks, six weeks, we’re going to see some horsemen struggle to feed themselves and feed their horses.”
Should it come to that, some will have to sell their horses in a glutted marketplace, though Hansen said the destination of last resort isn’t the proverbial glue factory — it’s Amish country, where families use harness horses to pull buggies.
Somone said some in the sport are pursuing emergency small business loans offered by the state, though he questioned whether the money would arrive before racing resumes.
The situation isn’t much better with thoroughbreds. The racing season at Arlington International Racecourse is supposed to begin May 1, but that start date seems unlikely.
The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, which represents owners and trainers, was still negotiating a contract with the track when major sporting events began to be canceled. The talks have remained on hold since no one is certain when public gatherings will again be allowed, said executive director David McCaffrey.
Churchill Downs Inc., which owns Arlington International, did not return a request for comment.
Though some tracks elsewhere in the country remain in operation, Chris Block, an Illinois-based trainer and breeder, said many horses have nowhere to race. Thoroughbred sales have also felt the impact of the virus: Upcoming auctions have been postponed after the last one saw many horses sold for a fraction of their value, if they sold at all.
“A lot of those buyers are heavily involved in the stock market and were hesitant to buy horses (after the market tanked),” he said.
Other corners of the industry are also feeling the pain. Paula Briney, president of the Horsemen’s Council of Illinois, boards and trains 30 horses near Springfield, and said while fees for those services have continued to come in, that won’t last forever in the coronavirus economy.
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“The longer this drags out, the more (parts of the industry) this is going to affect, and people will struggle to stay in business and/or keep their horses,” she said.
Stables that provide trail rides or lessons are already hurting, she said, though some patrons are underwriting the care of favorite horses despite being unable to ride them.
The carriage business run by Tony Troyer near Mendota has taken a big hit, too, with all of his events in April and May on hold. Still, he expressed a note of optimism, saying people in the equine business are naturally resilient and resourceful.
“At some point this is all going to turn around,” he said. “We just don’t know where the end of the tunnel is yet because we’re still right smack in the middle.”