California Horse Racing Board keeps tracks open, continues live racing

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LOS ANGELES (AP) An executive with the company that owns Santa Anita urged the California Horse Racing Board on Thursday to continue live racing despite a statewide stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Santa Anita in Arcadia, outside Los Angeles, and Golden Gate Fields in the San Francisco Bay area are among a handful of U.S. tracks continuing to race without fans. Both are owned by The Stronach Group.

“We are very different from almost every other industry. Horses need exercise,” Aidan Butler, acting executive director of California racing operations for Stronach, told the board during its monthly meeting held via conference call. “The second we stop racing, the whole ecosystem becomes in jeopardy.”

The issue of continuing live racing during the pandemic wasn’t on the board’s agenda, but the question was raised by board member Wendy Mitchell. Several animal activists condemned the board for allowing live racing to go on during a public comment period on the call.

Nationwide, Stonach-owned Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs in Florida, Oaklawn in Arkansas and Remington in Oklahoma City are staging live racing while the NBA and NHL have put their seasons on hold. Major League Baseball was supposed to begin its season on Thursday, but it has been postponed.

“You can’t look at all tracks the same,” Butler said. “In California, we are not subsidized. We can sustain as long as we can keep the sport going.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order for California has resulted in businesses shutting down or dramatically scaling back to protect against the spread of the virus.

Coronovirus cases in California are increasing as more testing is done. A tally by Johns Hopkins University counted over 3,200 confirmed cases and at least 65 deaths. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the board, said continuing to race “certainly isn’t a medical necessity” for horses.

“It is a health consideration that they train,” he said. “These are very fit, healthy, very good feeling athletes, and you just can’t keep them in a stall. You have to get them out and train them.”

Santa Anita’s stable area has about 1,700 horses and 750 workers on the grounds. The track has racing Friday, Saturday and Sunday each week.

Arthur, whose office is located in the stable area, said “rather extraordinary” efforts have been made to maintain sanitary conditions.

“I want to make sure we’re making the best decision for the state of California and taking what the governor said very, very seriously,” Mitchell said. “Other tracks around the country are shutting down.”

Keeneland in Kentucky canceled its upcoming spring meet, and Aqueduct in New York cut short its meet after a backstretch employee who lives and works at Belmont Park tested positive for the virus.

“The optics of us continuing racing while the rest of the world is at home, I understand looks terrible,” Butler told the board.

However, he said a track’s stable area is “by its nature kind of a quarantined area.” Santa Anita’s backstretch workers typically live in dorms on the property and have access to an on-site health clinic. Butler said food that was to be used when the track was open to the public was re-directed to stable workers and food delivery has been set up so they don’t have to leave the property.

“I’m not trying to be alarmist,” Butler said. “I can assure you if we don’t keep everybody together and safe we’re going to end up with a bunch of homeless people and a bunch of animal issues.”

Anyone coming to Santa Anita from out of state is first required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Cliff Goodrich, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Foundation, said if racing stops workers would have nowhere to go and “end up out in communities with the risking of infecting others.”

He said he wasn’t aware of any backstretch workers being tested yet or of any coronavirus infections.

Goodrich said it costs $20,000 a day to maintain the stable area.

“Right now the only funding source we have is advanced deposit wagering,” he said. “If that shuts down, we would have to shut our doors and not be able to treat backstretch workers.”

Several animal activists used their two minutes during the public comment portion to assail the board. Some said they watched last weekend’s racing at Santa Anita online and noticed social distancing wasn’t being practiced and people were not wearing masks or gloves.

“Since you haven’t tested one person at the racetrack, who knows how many people are infected?” a woman said. “Horse racing is not essential to keep open.”

Oscar De La Torre, an advocate for backstretch workers, urged the board to keep workers and their families at the forefront.

“These workers are very vulnerable,” he said. “The fact that people can still work has given them a lot of certainty in their lives. We just need to make sure we’re thinking about the workers and their families at this time and allowing them the opportunities to continue to work, of course with safety first.”

Another activist said she noticed workers touching each other’s equipment during last weekend’s races.

“This is very irresponsible,” she said. “Coronavirus does not know any boundaries.”

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.”