Kentucky hopes to benefit from renewed horse sales to China

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) After a two-year standstill, Kentucky’s renowned horse industry is back in the race to develop a market in China, the world’s most populous country.

State Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles on Monday touted a new trade accord lifting a ban on U.S equine exports to China. The deal was signed by U.S. and Chinese officials last month.

The racing industry remains in its infancy in China, where betting is not allowed on horse races, Quarles said. But with the market now reopened, he predicted buyers will attend equine sales in Kentucky with an eye toward boosting racing and breeding operations in China.

“The Chinese racing industry, like other countries, wants the best, and they know Kentucky as the Lamborghinis of horses,” Quarles said in a phone interview.

Kentucky accounts for nearly two-thirds of overall U.S horse exports, he said. The Bluegrass state exports about $200 million worth of horses each year.

China has the potential to become a lucrative market, Quarles said.

“Imagine one planeload of thoroughbreds leaving central Kentucky after a sale headed toward China,” he said. “That’s going to be a multi-million-dollar economic impact off the bat.”

Quarles joined some of Kentucky’s equine leaders for an event Monday at Keeneland in Lexington to applaud the new trade accord.

Quarles predicted multiple breeds of Kentucky horses will be sold to China. Horses rank as Kentucky’s second-leading ag enterprise, with equine cash receipts projected at about $1 billion in 2017, according to University of Kentucky ag economist Kenny Burdine.

In 2015, the Chinese placed a hold on importing horses from the United States due to concerns about a potentially fatal equine viral disease.

Kentucky played an active role in U.S. efforts to resolve Chinese concerns. A Chinese delegation visited the Bluegrass state to visit horse farms and an equine research center.

The thoroughbred export market to China is estimated at about $30 million, with most racehorses now coming from Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, said Chauncey Morris, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders.

Keeneland, which hosts lucrative thoroughbred auctions in Lexington, also hailed the resumption of horse sales with China.

“As the world’s largest thoroughbred auction house, we at Keeneland are excited by the significant expansion opportunities it offers Kentucky’s entire horse industry, especially breeders and sellers,” said Keeneland President and CEO Bill Thomason.

Morris predicted Kentucky will reap the lion’s share of U.S. horse exports to China. China’s potential as a horse market would skyrocket if its ban on betting horse races ends, he said.

“Should wagering on horse racing ever become legal in China, it would become, overnight, probably the most important export market in the world,” he said.

China has already become an important export market for Kentucky soybeans, pork and poultry, UK ag economist Will Snell said. The next goal is to develop a Chinese market for Kentucky beef, Quarles said.

“Opening new export markets are critical to the future growth in the Kentucky ag economy,” Snell said.

Flightline, Pletcher, Godolphin lead way at Eclipse Awards

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PALM BEACH, Fla. — Flightline ran away in all six of his races, and ran away with top honors at the Eclipse Awards on Thursday night.

And trainer Todd Pletcher, for the first time in nearly a decade, received the sport’s top prize as well.

Flightline – the now-retired winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap an unbeaten six-race career – won Horse of the Year as well as the Eclipse as top Older Dirt Male. It was no surprise that Flightline took home both awards, and he’s now standing stud.

“We’ll hope that his future is as bright as his past,” co-owner Kosta Hronis said.

Godolphin was also a double winner, sweeping the Eclipses as top owner and top breeder for the second consecutive year. It was also the third consecutive top-owner Eclipse for Godolphin.

“This is truly a golden era for Godolphin racing,” said Michael Banahan, the stable’s director of bloodstock. “And these awards and accolades recognize how special it is.”

It was Pletcher’s eighth Eclipse, extending his record for the most by any trainer, and his first since 2014. It was one of the few close races in the voting; Pletcher got 108 first-place votes, while four-time Eclipse winner Chad Brown got 95 and finished second.

“This really is not an individual award. This is a team award,” Pletcher said. “This is an award about the owners, and most importantly, the horses.”

Irad Ortiz Jr. won the Eclipse as top jockey for the fourth time in the last five years; he tied Pat Day and Javier Castellano for third-most in history, behind only seven-time winner Jerry Bailey and five-time winner Laffit Pincay Jr.

Ortiz led all jockeys with more than $37 million in purses in 2022.

“Wow,” Ortiz said. “It’s been an amazing year for me.”

Forte won the Eclipse as 2-year-old male, and will enter this year’s Triple Crown season as one of the early favorites.

“We’re all in this game for a horse like Forte,” said Mike Repole, the horse’s co-owner along with Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola and Teresa Viola. “We’re all in this game to one day maybe own a 2-year-old that has a chance. It’s great to have the Kentucky Derby favorite. … Forte’s an incredible horse.”

Epicenter won the 3-year-old male Eclipse, after running second at both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, then winning the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga over the summer.

Wonder Wheel was the winner as 2-year-old filly, while Nest won the Eclipse in the 3-year-old filly division. Malathaat was the Eclipse winner for older dirt female, Goodnight Olive for female sprinter and Regal Glory for female turf horse.

Elite Power was picked as the top male sprinter, Modern Games won the Eclipse for male turf horse, and Hewick was the Eclipse winner in the steeplechase division.

Jose Antonio Gomez won as top apprentice jockey.

The Eclipse Awards are voted on by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers And Broadcasters.

Trainer Bob Baffert’s ban from racing in New York is over

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Bob Baffert can once again enter horses at New York’s major tracks.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s one-year ban by the New York Racing Association ended Wednesday, allowing him to enter horses as soon as Thursday.

“I was disappointed they even did it, but it’s water under the bridge,” Baffert told The Associated Press by phone.

He was suspended last June for repeated medication violations, although none of them occurred in New York. He was barred from Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. A panel credited Baffert for time served for an initial suspension, which allowed him to return this week.

Aqueduct is currently holding its 44-day winter meet that runs through March 26. Baffert doesn’t typically run horses this time of year in New York; he targets the biggest stakes races at Belmont in the spring and Saratoga in the summer.

Baffert remains under a two-year ban by Churchill Downs Inc., which sidelined him after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a substance that is not allowed on race day. The penalty expires shortly after the Kentucky Derby in May. However, Baffert is fighting the suspension in federal court.

The Southern California-based trainer has a big weekend coming up around the country, although not in New York.

He has horses running at three tracks on Saturday.

Defunded is entered in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in Florida, where Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes will be on hand.

Arabian Knight goes into the $750,000 Southwest Stakes as the early favorite at Oaklawn in Arkansas. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby prep race a record-tying five times and will travel to Hot Springs to watch the 3-year-old colt.

“It’s going to be a good test for him. The only way to find out is to run him long,” he said. “It’s going to take a superior horse to do that and I’m hoping that he is.”

The Southwest offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top five finishers. Arabian Knight won’t receive any points regardless of his placing because of Baffert’s Derby ban.

Hopper will run in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

On Sunday at the same track, Baffert has entered four of the five horses set to run in the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes for 3-year-olds.