Baffert feeling pressure but holding strong hand for Derby

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bob Baffert is feeling the pressure now. The five-time Kentucky Derby winner finds himself with new favorite Game Winner since Omaha Beach was scratched with a breathing problem.

“Oh, boy, here we go,” the white-haired trainer said Thursday to a throng outside his Churchill Downs barn. “I think everybody is trying to jinx me. It’s still a very wide-open race.”

The Derby possibly could lose another horse, too.

Haikal, a 30-1 shot trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, is being treated for an abscess in his left front foot. The Gotham Stakes winner didn’t train Thursday and soaked in Epsom salts to reduce the accumulation of pus in his infected foot.

If Haikal can’t train again Friday, McLaughlin said he would be out of the race. The deadline to scratch is Friday morning.

No matter how much he tries to deflect the attention, Baffert holds a strong hand heading into Saturday’s race. Game Winner is the 9-2 early favorite, and his two other horses, Improbable and Roadster, are the co-second choices at 5-1.

A sixth victory would tie him for the most wins by a trainer in the Derby’s 145-year history.

“I don’t think there’s a heavy-duty favorite now,” he insisted.

Instead, he tried to sic the media on Jason Servis, who trains Maximum Security. The Florida Derby winner is a 10-1 shot.

“He should be the favorite,” Baffert said. “He’s a horse that nobody is talking about and that’s a horse that I’m worried about. He’s run faster than we have. Put the pressure on Jason, will you?”

Over at his barn, Servis empathized with trainer Richard Mandella and 78-year-old owner Rick Porter, their Derby hopes dashed a day earlier. But he was glad to see Mike Smith knocked out of the race. The 53-year-old Hall of Famer is a crafty rider who won a year ago with Justify.

“I was really happy about that, especially having him outside of me,” said Servis, alluding to Smith’s ability to have possibly prompted Maximum Security into a quicker than desirable early pace.

Baffert said he gave no thought to replacing Florent Geroux aboard Game Winner with Smith.

“I would never do that to the riders,” he said, having started in racing as a jockey.

Meanwhile, Omaha Beach was set to have surgery Thursday to fix an entrapped epiglottis that affects his breathing. The minor procedure, at nearby clinic Lexington, will require two to three weeks of recovery, enough time to knock the colt off the Triple Crown trail. He’s expected to race this summer.

“As bad as it felt yesterday, it would be a horrible feeling to have him not finish well and know that I was at fault for running him,” Mandella said. “So we had to do the right thing by the horse, and that is give it up and go to the next step.”

Prominent owner and breeder Arthur Hancock was among many who contacted Mandella to express sympathy. Hancock pointed out that the late training great Charlie Whittingham was 73 when he won his first and only Derby.

“So who I am to think I should be doing this now?” said Mandella, who is 68.

Baffert felt Mandella’s pain. In 2014, he had to scratch Hoppertunity because of a minor foot problem two days before the Derby.

“There’s nothing like coming to the Derby when you have a legitimate chance to win it and then all of a sudden the rug is just pulled out from under you,” Baffert said. “It’s a tough feeling.”

Certainly much tougher than saddling the top three wagering choices in the Derby.

Alluding to his 2012 heart attack in Dubai, Baffert assured onlookers he could handle the pressure.

“I got three stents and they’re good,” he said, patting his chest with both hands.

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.”