Harness racing returning to Harrington in June

DOVER — Horseman, says Sal DiMario, are creatures of habit.

When there’s a harness racing meet in session, there’s a pretty predictable routine they fall into.

“They’re not the kind of people who sit around in the afternoon,” said DiMario. “They work all morning getting their horses ready, they take a break and then they take them to the races. They work into the evening, bring them home, put them away and start again the next day.”

With harness racing shut down for the last couple months by the coronavirus pandemic, a big part of that schedule was missing.

That’s why DiMario says the local horse racing community is excited with the news that live harness racing will be returning to Harrington Raceway on June 15.

DiMario is the executive director of the Delaware Standardbred Owners Association, which helped work out the conditions of racing’s return. The Harrington meet was originally scheduled to start on April 15.

“Horsemen are dying to get back to racing,” said DiMario. “They’ve been training their horses. They’ve done everything that you would normally have to do to be ready to race, not knowing when it was going to be.”

There will be some restrictions when racing returns, of course.

Fans won’t be allowed to watch the races in person. Nightly cards will be limited to nine races with the purses down about 40 percent, said DiMario.

But, he said, it’s a big step toward getting back to normalcy in the harness community.

“I’m sure it’s been hard on them,” said DiMario. “This, if nothing else, will be a huge boost to their mental state and start to get them in a positive light and get them back to doing what they normally do. Even though they’ll be racing for smaller purses, they’ll be racing. And that’s the name of the game.”

DiMario said the DSBF Stake races will still be held. But rather than starting on June 15, they’ll begin a week later, on June 22 to leave time to get horses qualified.

Right now, the Harrington meet is slated to run one week longer than originally planned, ending on July 15.

The purses will be smaller, at least at first, because the casinos have also been closed.

Horseman at the track will follow standard coronavirus protocol, with masks required, social distancing and testing for symptoms taking place. Personnel will be limited to just one groom and one trainer per horse while the winner’s circle will be held close to the paddock.

Stalls will only be used once per night with empty stalls being left between each one being used. That’s why the number of races will be limited to nine per night.

DiMario said tracks in surrounding states are still negotiating a return to racing or may be opening around mid-June, too. He expects nearby Ocean Downs in Berlin, Maryland, to open n July.

Off-site wagering is expected to be available at some point, DiMario just wasn’t sure of all the details.

“We’re just grateful we’re back,” he said. “I’m thankful to the governor, the secretary of Ag and the powers that be that they were cooperative, they listened and worked with us to get this done.

“I’m optimistic, with time, we’ll be back to where we were,” DiMario added. “But it’s going to take time. Hopefully, it will be quicker rather than later.”