Workers urge legislators to keep Santa Anita open

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Backstretch workers who walk, groom and care for racehorses at Santa Anita urged state legislators on Thursday to keep the Southern California track open after the deaths of 29 horses since December.

An estimated 500 workers gathered after morning training hours at the track, toting handmade signs emphasizing their love of horses and the importance of being allowed to continue their livelihoods.

“Horses are our lives” read one sign. Another read “We were born into this and it is our life.”

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said he is regularly approached by workers worried about their futures.

“A lot of jobs this industry has and we have to save them,” he said before the rally. “I can always pick up and leave, but they can’t. As an employer, I’ve felt more pressure worrying about them.”

The workers expressed their support for new safety measures put in place since the string of deaths that has cast a pall over the historic track sitting at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains in Arcadia.

“We do not like to lose one single animal. We love them all,” said Leandro Mora, a longtime assistant to trainer Doug O’Neill. “Those are our kids.”

Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of track owner The Stronach Group, stood aside listening to the series of workers who stepped to a podium to speak. They were cheered loudly by their colleagues.

Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said in a statement that backstretch workers’ jobs are in jeopardy if more horses die.

“Safe horses mean safe jobs,” she said. “If these workers don’t already support continuing reform, they should get behind it right now.”

The Stronach Group later released a statement in which it noted that backstretch workers have been “a willing partner” in implementing safety reforms during the meet.

“We look forward to working with the hundreds of backstretch workers at Santa Anita Park as we continue to move the industry forward and educate Californians on how impactful horse racing is to the state,” track ownership said.

Racing at Santa Anita resumes Friday and continues until Sunday, the last day of the meet.

The circuit moves to Los Alamitos in Orange County from June 26-July 16. Del Mar near San Diego opens its major summer meet July 17.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sent letters to Gov. Gavin Newsom and the owners of Los Alamitos and Del Mar urging them to expand the enhanced safety review Newsom ordered at Santa Anita.

“The extra layer of review you established to examine each horse’s medical records and racing history is a prudent step to ensure racehorse safety,” Feinstein wrote. “I urge you to implement it at racetracks throughout California for the remainder of the year.”

Alan Balch, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, told the crowd, “Without the backstretch workers there would be no racing.”

The workers, who are hired by trainers stabled at the track, typically rise at 4 a.m. and toil seven days a week as grooms, stable attendants, watchmen and exercise riders. About 80% of them live on the backstretch, where medical and dental services are available as well as help with drug and alcohol problems.

“It’s emotional to see all the hard workers and their families out here to have a voice because they haven’t had a voice,” O’Neill said before the rally. “There’s so much uncertainty, yet here we are loving on horses and no one reports on that.”

Workers fear for their futures if the track would be forced to close as a result of the horse deaths.

“This job allows me to sustain my family,” said Alberto Lopez Mendoza, a 35-year worker who said two of his children received college scholarships from a foundation dedicated to helping backstretch employees.

“I feel like the horses under my care are like my family. I take care of them like they are my family.”

Rally organizer Oscar de la Torre said horse racing directly provides 77,000 jobs in California, including 3,000 at Santa Anita.

“We don’t want welfare, we don’t want unemployment,” a worker in the crowd shouted. “We just want to keep our jobs at Santa Anita.”

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.”

Fractional interest in Flightline sells for $4.6 million

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Keeneland says a 2.5% fractional interest in Breeders’ Cup Classic champion Flightline has sold for $4.6 million during a special auction before the start of its November Breeding Stock Sale.

Brookdale Farm’s Freddy Seitz signed the ticket for an undisclosed client, the track announced in a release. The sale comes a day after ownership of the 4-year-old son of Tapit retired the unbeaten colt following his record 8\-length victory in Saturday’s $6 million, Grade 1 Classic at Keeneland. Flightline likely locked up Horse of the Year honors with his fourth Grade 1 victory in six starts by a combined victory margin of 71 lengths – dominance that has drawn comparisons to legendary Triple Crown champion Secretariat.

Flightline will begin his breeding career next year at Lane’s End Farms in Versailles, Kentucky, but a stud fee has yet to be determined. West Point Thoroughbreds, part of the bay colt’s ownership, offered the fractional interest. Seitz said the buyer wanted to “make a big splash” and get more involved in the business.

“With a special horse like (Flightline) all you can do is get involved and then just hope for the best,” Seitz said in the release.

“There has never been a horse that has done what he has done for however many years, back to Secretariat. You just have to pay up and get involved, and this is kind of what he’s thinking.”