American Sailor
Jose Ortiz got a high five after piloting Elate to a win in the Delaware Handicap. Photo by Allison Janezic.

A year ago, Delaware Park was wrestling with equine disease – a case of the strangles – as Delaware Handicap day approached.

This year, it’s human disease, in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic. New York and New Jersey have both placed Delaware on a list of states from which new arrivals must quarantine themselves. Delaware has seen a small uptick in new hospitalizations and in the percent of people testing positive for the disease in recent days.

But it appears – for the moment, anyway – that the card on Delaware’ signature day will hold together. The three stakes – the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap, Grade 3 Robert G. Dick Memorial, and the $75,000 Dashing Beauty – have a combined total of 29 horses. And they’re just three of 10 races on a strong card.

“Hopefully, we won’t have too many problems,” said Delaware Park’s executive director of racing John Mooney. “The fields came up pretty strong, probably better than expected.”

As always, the day’s – and meet’s – feature is the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap. The longtime fixture, in its 83rd running this year, saw its purse cut to $400,000 and its distance shortened from 1 ¼ miles to 1 1/8. It’s drawn an eight-horse field, including three graded stakes winners, among them the multiple graded winner Dunbar Road, trained by Chad Brown.

Mooney said the reductions in both purse and distance were driven by the pandemic. The closure of the casino, which subsidizes the racetrack, zapped the amount of available purse money and spurred the track to economize by running fewer days and by reducing overall stakes purses. And it meant that many horses went months without a race, making their ability to navigate the traditional 10-furlong DelCap a bit tricky.

With the Belmont Stakes – traditionally contested at 1 ½ miles – cut back to 1 1/8, that made shortening the DelCap a “no-brainer,” Mooney said.

“That was a shift that was made to be hopefully more advantageous” to the horses and their connections, he said.

But if he has his druthers, it’ll be a one-year no-brainer. Next year, he said, he’d like to go back to the longer race and the larger purse.

Among the contestants in the Grade 3 Robert Dick Memorial – an 11-furlong turf race on the undercard – are the defending champion, Gentle Ruler, and Mrs. Sippy, a Grade 2 winner herself making her season debut for trainer Graham Motion, who’s won this event eight times.

But the toughest race of all might the six-furlong Dashing Beauty for fillies and mares. A win here would push six-year-old Anna’s Bandit’s career earnings past $800,000, but she’ll have to contend with last year’s winner, Bronx Beauty, and Chalon, the Arnaud Delacour trainee who was second in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.

And so if the weather holds, and the shippers stay in, and nothing worse happens with the pandemic, Delaware Park’s card will be one of the best in the nation on Saturday – one worth a watch, and a wager.

“Day to day, we never know what will happen,” Mooney said of the rules governing the track during the pandemic. Or maybe he was talking about horse racing in general.