Still in the saddle: Australian racing goes on amid pandemic

AP Photo
0 Comments

SYDNEY — It’s arguably more popular in Australia than any other country, so it’s no surprise that horse racing is continuing – minus the spectators – despite the increasing travel and other restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The multi-billion dollar racing industry employs 250,000 part- and full-time workers in Australia, where there are more than 360 thoroughbred tracks. That’s roughly one for every 68,000 people, a world-leading ratio by a considerable margin.

Australia boasts some of the world’s richest races. The Melbourne Cup – “the race that stops a nation” – is one of the country’s strongest cultural institutions. Sydney hosts The Everest, the $8.6 million sprint. It also has the most lucrative race for two-year-olds, the Golden Slipper, to be run this Saturday, in front of empty grandstands. Rosehill Racecourse would usually be crowded for this.

At least racing can exist without on-location spectators, with devotees able to watch and wager from home. And that’s been the only option since measures were brought in last week limiting race days to participants only: jockeys, trainers, racetrack officials, media, and workers such as farriers and ambulance personnel.

The virus outbreak has coincided with some of the biggest events of the southern hemisphere autumn carnivals in Australia’s two largest cities of Melbourne and Sydney. The Golden Slipper day, for instance, features five Group 1 (or Grade 1) races.

Aside from the removal of race day atmosphere, participants are having to become creative to do what they love in the time of coronavirus. Particularly some of those people who now need looking after the most if racing is to continue – the jockeys.

They are already being kept apart from other industry participants on course, but more and stricter measures are set to follow.

Melbourne will host a Group 1 sprint Friday night, the William Reid Stakes. Usually, some Sydney-based jockeys would fly to Melbourne for the night and return to Sydney the next morning for Golden Slipper day.

But racing officials have banned riders from shuttling between states on commercial flights for fear they will catch the virus.

So prominent jockey Hugh Bowman – the regular rider of the former top-ranked Winx – and a fellow Sydney jockey Tommy Berry, set out by car on Thursday for the 545-mile (877-kilometer) drive to Melbourne.

Completing the 10-hour drive to return for Sydney’s big Saturday meeting would have been trickier. Luckily, a handful of prominent Melbourne-based jockeys – taking rides in Sydney – have chartered a private jet to dodge the commercial flight ban. Melbourne racing officials have helped by rescheduling the William Reid Stakes to run an hour earlier than planned, so the jockeys’ flight can arrive at Sydney airport before its usual night-time curfew.

Racing officials “felt if we took those steps and followed the protocols … we can keep our industry going,” the jockey organizing the charter flight, Craig Williams, told local media. “I’m happy to do what we’re told so we can keep racing.”

Increased curbs on jockey movement are almost certain to be imposed.

Anthony Darmanin is in different predicament. He will ride Mystic Journey in the William Reid at 8:30 p.m, then head to Melbourne airport hoping to catch the last flight home to Tasmania state at 9:40 p.m. That’s because Tasmania state has instituted restrictions starting midnight Friday forcing anyone entering the southern island state to self-quarantine for 14 days. The drive to the airport should take only 15 minutes, but with check-in time 30 minutes before departure, he’ll be cutting it fine.

“It’s going to be an intense hour but hopefully it all works out,” Darmanin told Racing.com.

Jockeys have also pushed for minimum weights in races to be raised immediately, so some of them will not have to “waste” – or lose weight quickly – as much as usual to make the handicap levels allocated to their horses. They’re concerned their regular process of shedding weight by dieting or in saunas will at this time increase the chances of leaving their immune systems susceptible to the coronavirus.

Minimums have duly been raised 2.2 pounds (one kilogram) in New South Wales state, of which Sydney is the capital. Across the sea in New Zealand, where racing is also extremely popular, weights have been raised twice that much.

But, showing the challenges racing still faces amid COVID-19 – such as trying to ensure riders stay 1.5 meters (5-feet) away from each other in crowded jockeys’ dressing rooms – raising weights is not universally popular. One drawback is horses with heavier handicaps will need to carry still more.

Other measures to counter the coronavirus threat involve extra hygiene. On Golden Slipper day, jockeys will have to shower for five minutes on arrival and before departure, with their equipment disinfected between races.

Jockeys will have their temperatures checked on arrival at racecourses. This could be complicated by the regular practice of trying to lose weight late, with the heating up and the windows closed in the car. Accordingly, if a jockey’s temperature is high, he or she will be checked again 15 minutes later before a decision is reached on their fitness for racing.

Leading Sydney jockey Nash Rawiller summed up the unusual impacts of the virus on the industry.

“It feels a bit different,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald, “but if it is the way we keep going, we just have to do it.”

Appeals court strikes down federal horseracing rules act

hisa
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
1 Comment

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

flightline horse
Silas Walker/Getty Images
1 Comment

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.”