Racing resumes without incident at Santa Anita

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ARCADIA, Calif. – Racing returned to Santa Anita without incident Friday after the track was closed nearly a month ago following the deaths of 22 horses that forced changes in rules.

Discrete Stevie B won the first race on the main dirt track in front of a small crowd that was typical of weekday attendance. Outside the track, about 20 protesters toted signs critical of the sport.

“The regulars were here today and they were happy we were back and running,” said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita. “It’s hard to get excited about being back when we had such a bad run of catastrophic injuries.”

All eight races, including three on turf, went off without problems under a sunny sky, a slight breeze and temperatures in the mid-70s.

Ritvo said total wagering was down about 10 percent compared to a similar day last year.

“We hope the real measurement would be next weekend,” he said, referring to April 6 when the Santa Anita Derby and Santa Anita Handicap will comprise a major day of racing at the Arcadia track.

In Friday’s $200,000 San Luis Rey Stakes, Risky Proposition was a late scratch on the recommendation of the track veterinarian. Epical won the Grade 2 race for trainer Jim Cassidy.

The resumption of racing was being closely watched by the industry and the general public concerned about the safety of the horses.

“I’m just glad we got racing,” Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert told The Associated Press. “This is the most beautiful track in America.”

Santa Anita had been without racing since March 3, leaving a variety of track employees idled without pay. The dirt surface was inspected and renovated during the shutdown that followed the high number of horse deaths since Dec. 26.

Santa Anita was hit by nearly a foot of rain during an unusually cold and wet winter.

“I think that was the major problem,” said Baffert, who didn’t have any horses injured or die during the recent incidents.

Baffert had one starter on Friday. Rafal finished third as the 2-5 wagering favorite in the fifth race.

The decision to resume racing came after discussions between The Stronach Group, led by chief operating officer Belinda Stronach, the California Horse Racing Board and the Thoroughbred Owners of California led to several rules changes at Santa Anita.

“Belinda has made it clear that eventually all tracks will be under stronger scrutiny, that status quo in the past isn’t acceptable anymore and we have to do everything we can to try to protect the interests of the horse first,” Ritvo said. “She tells me if we protect the interests of the horse we may have short term losses in business but we’ll have long term gains in sustainably of the industry.”

The biggest change in place Friday was an immediate reduction in the allowable dosage of the anti-bleeding medication known as Lasix on race days. The approved dosage of the drug that can help a horse’s breathing dropped to 5 cc instead of 10 cc on race days.

“Five cc’s is plenty for a horse,” Baffert said.

Of the 67 horses that raced Friday, all but two ran on Lasix.

There were six scratches, including four in the first race.

“Some of them have to do with the new initiatives we put in place,” Ritvo said.

Next year in California, all 2-year-olds will be banned from race-day medication.

Ritvo said ownership is paying increased attention to what he described as the outside bubble, referring to the general public that doesn’t follow the sport closely.

“Even if they’re not fans, they’re the ones that will go to Sacramento and they’re the ones that will come out and vote and end our sport,” he said. “There’s more of them than we have customers, unfortunately.”

A proposed rule limiting the use of a whip during races still requires approval by the racing board as well as a legal review by the state government, which is expected to take months.

Track announcer Frank Mirahmadi informed spectators before each race that the whip rule discussed at Thursday’s racing board meeting was not in effect.

Baffert suggested a closer examination of the sport needs to begin in the breeding shed, where millions of dollars are often involved.

“The trainers and owners are the only ones accountable. We’re being regulated like crazy,” Baffert told AP. “These horses are changing a lot of hands by the time we get to them. They need to look at that. The whole industry has to look at ourselves from within.”

Only time will tell whether the changes curtail the string of horse fatalities.

“We need to do a really good job of trying to get into that outside bubble and tell people the truth of how people really love and care (for) these horses,” Ritvo said. “I’ve been in this game a long time and we’ve never found the right way to do it.”

Irad Ortiz sets single-season record with 77th stakes win

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NEW YORK – Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. earned his record 77th single-season North American stakes victory when he guided Dr B to victory in the $200,000 Go for Wand at Aqueduct.

The 30-year-old native of Puerto Rico broke the old mark of 76 set by the late Hall of Fame rider Garrett Gomez in 2007.

“This is great. Amazing feeling,” said Ortiz, Jr., who won the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey from 2018-20. “Gomez did it in 2007 and he was a great rider, one of the best in the game. I’m so happy just to be a part of this. I love this sport.”

Ortiz Jr. won the Belmont Stakes with Mo Donegal in June to go with Breeders’ Cup victories in the Juvenile, Filly & Mare Sprint and Sprint. He also earned nine other Grade 1 wins in New York, including Life Is Good in the Woodward and Whitney and Nest in the Alabama and Coaching Club Oaks. He won riding titles at Belmont’s spring-summer meet and Saratoga’s summer meet.

Ortiz Jr. leads North American riders with 304 overall victories this year. His purse earnings totaled over $35.8 million going into Saturday’s races, which already surpassed his single-season record of $34.1 million in 2019.

Appeals court strikes down federal horseracing rules act

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NEW ORLEANS — Congress unconstitutionally gave too much power to a nonprofit authority it created in 2020 to develop and enforce horseracing rules, a federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled Friday.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, or HISA, is “facially unconstitutional.”

The authority created by the act was meant to bring uniform policies and enforcement to horseracing amid doping scandals and racetrack horse deaths. But the 5th Circuit – in two rulings issued Friday – ruled in favor of opponents of the act in lawsuits brought by horseracing associations and state officials in Texas, Louisiana and West Virginia.

The Federal Trade Commission has the ultimate authority to approve or reject HISA regulations, but it can’t modify them. And the authority can reject proposed modifications.

Three 5th Circuit judges agreed with opponents of the act – including the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and similar groups in multiple states – that the setup gave too much power to the nongovernmental authority and too little to the FTC.

“A cardinal constitutional principle is that federal power can be wielded only by the federal government. Private entities may do so only if they are subordinate to an agency,” Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote for the panel that ruled in the Texas case.

The same panel, which also included judges Carolyn Dineen King and Kurt Engelhardt, cited the Texas ruling in a separate order in favor of horseracing interests and regulators challenging HISA in a different case.

The chair of the horseracing authority’s board of directors said it would ask for further court review. Friday’s ruling could be appealed to the full 5th Circuit court of the Supreme Court.

“If today’s ruling were to stand, it would not go into effect until January 10, 2023 at the earliest,” Charles Scheeler said in an email. “We are focused on continuing our critical work to protect the safety and integrity of Thoroughbred racing, including the launch of HISA’s Anti-Doping and Medication Control Program on January 1, 2023.”

The ruling was criticized by Marty Irby, executive director of the Animal Wellness Action organization. “Over the course of three Congresses, the most brilliant legal minds on Capitol Hill addressed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act’s constitutionality and ultimately decided that the Federal Trade Commission’s limited oversight was sufficient,” Irby said in an email.

Among the subjects covered by the authority’s rules and enforcement were jockey safety (including a national concussion protocol), the riding crop and how often riders can use it during a race, racetrack accreditation, and the reporting of training and veterinary records.

Animal rights groups, who supported the law, pointed to scandals in the industry involving medication and the treatment of horses.

Duncan wrote that in declaring HISA unconstitutional, “we do not question Congress’s judgment about problems in the horseracing industry. That political call falls outside our lane.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, hailed the ruling on Twitter, calling HISA a “federal takeover of Louisiana horse racing.”