Omaha Beach wins Arkansas Derby; Owendale takes Lexington

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A year after riding Justify to the Triple Crown, Mike Smith has a tough choice about which horse to ride in the Kentucky Derby.

Under Smith, Omaha Beach held off favored Improbable to win the $1 million Arkansas Derby by a length Saturday at Oaklawn Park, earning 100 points and vaulting himself into second place on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.

After entering the day 19th in the standings with 37.5 points, the dark bay colt became one of the key contenders by winning the Grade 1 final Derby qualifier. Omaha Beach is second behind leader Tacitus in the standings that determine the 20-horse field for the Derby on May 4.

This race was pretty impressive.

Omaha Beach was up front by the halfway point on a sloppy track and dueled Bob Baffert-trained Improbable the rest of the way. The horse trained by Richard Mandella earned his second consecutive graded stakes victory and third in a row in four starts in 2019.

“He looked like he was well within himself and Mike (Smith) just let him enjoy his job,” Mandella said, “just stride out and go where he went. My first thought was, `Jeez, don’t move too quick.’ And then I thought, `Don’t be second-guessing Mike Smith.’ – one of the greatest of all times.”

Smith added, “Picked a nice little spot and stayed right there. His cruising speed just takes him up there. I just basically tried to stay out of way. He’s doing it too easy, I’m better off letting him than fighting him.”

Smith has the option to go with either Omaha Beach or Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster in the Derby.

“It’s a lovely decision to have,” he said. “My agent will make the decision. That’s why I pay him.”

Baffert has three Derby entries: Improbable, Game Winner and Roadster.

Omaha Beach ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.91 and paid $5.40, $3 and 2.80.

Improbable returned $3.60 and $3, and Country House paid $4.20 to show.

At Keeneland in the day’s other Derby prep, Owendale rallied to take charge entering the stretch and went on to win the $200,000 Lexington Stakes by 1 3/4 lengths over Anothertwistafate to earn 20 points.

Though the bay colt won’t make the Derby field on points, he earned his second win in three starts this year and first stakes triumph. Owendale struggled at first but made his way through the 10-horse field into the lead at the stretch and eventually drew clear in the Grade 3 race.

It marked a big turnaround for the Brad Cox-trained horse after an eighth-place finish in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 16.

“Last race, we felt like he ate too much dirt, and he kind of backed out down the backside and then had too much to do,” said Cox’s assistant, Ricky Giannini. “Today, he ate the same amount of dirt. I think he’s just maturing and turning into a good horse. He’s always trained like it and today he put it all together and got the job done.”

Ridden by Florent Geroux, Owendale covered 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.14 and paid $27.40, $10 and $5.60.

“Things change a lot – sometimes you need to go to Plan B very quick,” Geroux said. “He ran a very good race.”

Anothertwistafate returned $3.40 and $2.60, and Sueno paid $2.80.

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.”