Belmont Park to return to racing: Inside hurdles that were cleared

Rick Schosberg begins his Mondays at 4:15 a.m., when he arrives at Belmont Park to train his horses and help the nearly 600 backstretch workers who call the track home to stay safe during the coronavirus era.

Racing will finally return to Belmont on Wednesday, but the work of training and caring for horses never stopped, even as the pandemic began to shut down the state in March.

“It’s a whole new world out there, but I think everybody really showed the incentive to do everything they could to show the powers that be and the governor’s office that we really are serious about making sure everybody remains healthy while we’re going about our daily business,” Schosberg, a veteran trainer and chair of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association’s backstretch/safety committee, told The Post on Friday.

“I think the backstretch community and all the organizations, working together in lockstep for a single initiative, not only did it help us during this but moving forward, it shows we can communicate and we can work together on all initiatives to better our industry. Like our governor said, we’re not looking to get back to where we were, we’re looking to get better.”

So Schosberg rises early. Mondays are the distribution days for masks and gloves and other personal protective equipment, and Schosberg is part of the group that helps facilitate it. He checks in on the barns around his own and makes sure they are all fully equipped for the week ahead.

When he gets to his barn, it’s time for temperature checks. In addition to the ones conducted for anybody entering through Gate 6, each trainer now has a thermal thermometer and is required to take the temperature of all their working staff. If a barn has 40 horses, there may be eight grooms and eight hot walkers and five exercise riders and an assistant trainer to check in on, each one playing an important role in the day-to-day care of a racehorse, no matter if there is a race to run or not.

“We go about our business in a new, more creative way,” Schosberg said. “Like when a horse comes back from the track, instead of having three people in the stall, there’s two people in the stall. So they stay far apart. … And then the groom will walk the horse out into the shed or out onto the wash area to the hot walker, so that they stay far apart. And then during the washing period, there’s plenty of safe distance between the two people while they still keep their face coverings on.

“So it’s a little different, it looks a little different, but it’s working.”

Working in the barn can be a dirty job, so early-and-often handwashing was already part of the daily routine for grooms. Now there’s even more cleaning — everything from pitchforks and rakes to pens gets cleaned off and wiped down with either a bleach product or an isopropyl alcohol wash every morning, Schosberg said.

It took a team effort from NYTHA, the New York Racing Association, the Backstretch Employee Service Team and the New York Race Track Chaplaincy — led by the “heroic” chaplain Humberto Chavez, Schosberg said — to adapt to the new normal, which began with setting up a quarantine facility when COVID-19 began to hit the state. The Belmont backstretch community did lose one of its own in April, when a 63-year-old groom, Martin Zapata, died from complications of coronavirus.

But Schosberg said the health protocols and use of protective equipment have helped make “a huge difference” in keeping the community safe, paving the way for Wednesday’s opening day of races.

“I think you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out the fact that this stuff works when used properly,” Schosberg said. “If we’re going to achieve our goal, to be back racing and hopefully at some point with our owners to be able to come see their horses and maybe a limited-size crowd at some point in the future, don’t take our foot off the accelerator.”

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