Tragedy strikes Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita despite reform

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ARCADIA, Calif. — The Breeders’ Cup and Santa Anita came within 220 yards of staging a safe weekend of championship racing.

It all came down to the $6 million Classic in front of nearly 70,000 fans and a prime-time television audience. The 11-horse field thundered out of the final turn, with favorite McKinzie in the lead and Vino Rosso bearing down on him.

Behind them along the rail, Mongolian Groom suddenly faltered. Jockey Abel Cedillo jerked on the reins to ease the 4-year-old gelding, who hopped on three legs. His injured left hind leg dangled distressingly.

Vino Rosso charged past McKinzie to claim victory, triggering cheers and a celebration by his human connections. Up the track, a screen was set up to shield Mongolian Groom and an equine ambulance drove to his rescue.

But there was nothing to be done after the gelding sustained what Cup officials described as “a serious fracture” of his leg. Given the extent of the injury, four veterinarians recommended that he be euthanized.

Mongolian Groom became the 37th horse to die at Santa Anita since last December, and the seventh since the fall meet began Sept. 27.

It was a final blow in a strife-filled season for a sport struggling to protect the lives of horses and jockeys amid a steady drumbeat of public criticism by everyone from Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom to animal rights activists demanding an end to horse racing in California.

The deaths had prompted track owner The Stronach Group to change rules involving medication and training. The Breeders’ Cup beefed up its own pre-race exams and observations of runners.

But no one can eliminate the unpredictability of sports or injury.

“You just don’t know when it is going to happen,” two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert said. “We try to keep them as safe as we can.”

A day after the Breeders’ Cup ended its record 10th running at Santa Anita, all was quiet at the track.

All nine races went off without incident Sunday on closing day of the fall meet. A horse in the last race was pulled up but was uninjured.

Racing moves to Del Mar starting Friday through Dec. 1 at the seaside track north of San Diego.

Santa Anita opens its winter-spring meet on Dec. 26.

By then, more changes could be in place. The Stronach Group has said it’s looking into the feasibility of replacing Santa Anita’s main dirt track with a synthetic surface, something tried before in California and cast aside.

Craig Fravel has now left his post as CEO of the Breeders’ Cup to join The Stronach Group, where he’ll be in charge of executing and enforcing effective procedures and integrity standards for horses and riders.

The California Thoroughbred Trainers organization has agreed to help raise money for the purchase of an equine MRI (to scan horses while standing) for the equine imaging center on the Santa Anita backstretch. A Nov. 15 deadline is looming to contract for the equipment so it would be installed before the winter-spring meet opens.

The imaging center already has nuclear scan technology and will add an equine PET scan, with The Stronach Group kicking in $500,000 for it and another $200,000 coming from a private foundation dedicated to research on equine health issues.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is demanding all racing nationwide be suspended until specific measures are put in place, including the installation of CT scan equipment at all tracks.

“Any reluctance to do so will lead to more deaths and the self-destruction of horse racing,” PETA senior vice president Kathy Guillermo said.

Political action committee Animal Wellness Action is urging Congress to pass the Horseracing Integrity Act, which seeks to establish a national, uniform standard for medication in the industry. It would also create an independent organization managed by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to oversee medication rules, testing and enforcement.

The Breeders’ Cup, The Jockey Club and The Stronach Group are supporting the bill through the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity.

Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, isn’t part of that group and instead wants to create a new coalition that would advocate with state regulators for fair and uniform regulation in the 38 racing jurisdictions nationwide.

“If they don’t step up in support of the bill, then we’ll see more groups take up the issue and the debate will shift away from eliminating doping in horse racing to eliminating horse racing itself,” said Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action.

The California Horse Racing Board plans to release in December the results of its investigation into the deaths at Santa Anita. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office has yet to indicate when its probe will conclude.

As with the other fatalities, Mongolian Groom will undergo a required necropsy at UC Davis.

The gelding whose owner and trainer are Mongolian had been a surprising success story after being bought for $12,000 as a 2-year-old in training in 2018.

Besides winning the Grade 1 Awesome Again at Santa Anita in September to earn a berth in the Classic, Mongolian Groom had a second and two thirds in other graded stakes to go with career earnings of $579,141.

A day before the Classic, trainer Enebish Ganbat wouldn’t lay out his vision for the race.

“Mongolian people do not predict the race before the race,” he said. “It’s bad luck.”

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.”