Belmont features one of the safest racing surfaces in U.S.

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The home of the Belmont Stakes is laps ahead of other U.S. racetracks when it comes to keeping horses safe.

Belmont Park and other tracks around the state of New York have had some of the fewest horse deaths in the sport. Amid the 26 horse deaths at California’s Santa Anita Park since late December, the Belmont will be run Saturday on a track that national observers say is among the safest and best maintained in the country.

A major reason for the high praise is the attention given to Belmont Park’s dirt and turf track surfaces by Glen Kozak, senior vice president of facilities and racing surfaces at the New York Racing Association.

“They’ve just turned the corner and not all the racetracks have kind of turned that corner where they feel like this is how they manage it,” said Dr. Mick Peterson, executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory in Lexington, Kentucky. “And that’s really where they’re in the lead.”

Belmont Park’s 2018 fatality rate of 0.98 per 1,000 starts is significantly under the national average of 1.68, and there hasn’t been a fatal breakdown in the Belmont, the third race of the Triple Crown, since 1993. Compare that to a 2.42 fatality rate at Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, and 2.33 at Pimlico Race Course, which hosts the Preakness.

Tyler Gaffalione, who won the Preakness aboard War of Will, has ridden at Belmont Park 66 times and raves about the surfaces being consistent. The right mix of clay, silt and moisture helps horses run evenly across the track.

“I love the track at Belmont,” Gaffalione said. “Every time I’ve gone there it’s been very consistent. It feels like every horse gets over it well. It plays fairly. You can be in front. You can come from behind. I think they do a tremendous job.”

The Belmont has not had a fatal breakdown since 1993.

Kozak and his team use technology and old-fashion grit to make the track surfaces consistent.

They keep copious amounts of data using ground-penetrating radar and sensors that track the moisture content in the tracks. They also have a weather station that tracks rainfall and wind speed. In addition to the advanced information, Kozak puts the onus on his employees to pay attention to details when watering or raking the 1 +-mile dirt oval and separate training track, or filling divots on one of the two turf courses.

“You are impacting either horses’ lives or human lives,” Kozak said. “As far as reducing (injuries and deaths), we’re just one of the pieces of that puzzle, for sure. The focus is always on the surface, but it’s the training in the morning, it’s the veterinarians that take care of the horses, it’s the blacksmiths that shoe the horses, it’s the exercise riders that possibly can feel a problem before it becomes a catastrophic problem.”

Belmont Park has not experienced a catastrophic trend since a spate of breakdowns in 2011-12. Because of the changes made since, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association has endorsed the work New York racing is doing in conjunction with the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory in Kentucky.

“The evidence is very clear that the investment and the persistence and the insistence of putting forth the very, very best industry racing surfaces at Belmont Park,” said Steve Koch, the NTRA Safety & Integrity Alliance executive director who has repeatedly said one horse death is one too many. “At Belmont Park, NYRA racing, Glen Kozak and his team and the way they do things up there, that is going to be our industry benchmark.”

It’s not just about the Belmont Stakes, though that is when the spotlight shines brightest on the massive track in New York. Limiting injuries caused by the surface arguably is more important than ever given the current climate around horse racing and how many casual fans may tune in for Saturday’s race.

Peterson describes what’s happening in New York as a positive “culture change.” He said consistent surfaces are important because horses with their long strides take longer to adapt to changes from softer to harder tracks, or vice versa, than humans. Peterson compares it to someone missing a step off a curb – but is far worse for a horse.

Kozak’s work is not proprietary, he assists other tracks.

“In this industry, it’s a reflection on everybody, so the more that we can do and the more helpful and to outline the best practices that we do, a bunch of different jurisdictions have been in contact with what we do or how we do it or where we bought our horse ambulance or how we built our water truck,” Kozak said. “I’m an open book. Our information isn’t secret by any means, and if it can help another jurisdiction to make a surface better or to help the industry, it’s the best thing for everybody.”

Gaffalione expects other tracks to pick up some of what Belmont is laying down on its surfaces.

“They definitely are the elite,” the jockey said. “They hold themselves to a higher standard that others will soon follow.”

Flightline, Pletcher, Godolphin lead way at Eclipse Awards

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Pat McDonogh/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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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Courier Journal/USA TODAY Sports
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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.