Los Alamitos off probation after new safety plan approved

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LOS ANGELES — Los Alamitos is off probation with the California Horse Racing Board approving its plan to address injuries and deaths at the Orange County track.

The board voted 6-0 remotely on Monday to allow Los Alamitos to continue operating. It had been on a 10-day probation and under threat of losing its license that runs through Dec. 22.

According to the board, 21 horses have died from racing or training at the track in 2020, including 10 since May 26. Two horses died after the board’s emergency meeting on July 10 in which it voted 5-1 to grant probation.

“I can assure you all that we’re kind of humiliated by this whole thing,” track owner Ed Allred told the board. “Things happen in clusters sometimes. We’re going to do everything we possibly can to do things properly in the future.”

The track’s new Safety Enhancement Plan includes: training practices, prerace procedures, a panel to review race entries and post-incident assessments.

One veterinarian will be added to the staff during morning training hours to observe horses as they enter and exit the track. The track will appoint a so-called safety steward to patrol the stable area to observe veterinarians and barn personnel daily. Similar measures are already in effect at Del Mar, Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields.

Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the board, said he doesn’t see an issue with the track surface.

“What I do see are questionable training and horse management practices and questionable veterinary practices,” he said.

He referred specifically to multiple and repeated intra-articular joint injections “often without diagnostic procedures.” Those inject a solution directly into a horse’s joint, which maximizes the effect of the medication by putting it exactly where it’s needed. The risks include infection, further damage to the joint and even laminitis, a potentially life-threatening affliction in a horse’s hoof.

Arthur said he met with vets at Los Alamitos recently and “made it clear that if veterinary practice did not change I would not hesitate to recommend to this board even more restrictive protocols.”

Before its vote, the board questioned whether a culture change was needed at the track.

“I will assure you that Dr. Allred leads the culture there and certainly by establishing this, trainers are going to have to explain to him if there is an accident or a fatality,” Arthur said.

“We want to give the track at Los Alamitos the backbone to crack down,” said Commissioner Wendy Mitchell, who was the lone dissenter in voting against probation.

Los Alamitos was the only track in California allowed to continue operating during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. It runs night racing Friday through Sunday featuring mostly quarter horses with some thoroughbred racing mixed in.

The meet from June 26-July 5, which featured strictly thoroughbreds, did not have any fatalities, the board said. The track has about 750 quarter horses and 750 thoroughbreds stabled on the grounds at any given time.

“Dr. Allred, you have stepped up and you’ve raised the bar. That’s what I wanted to see,” Commissioner Dennis Alfieri said. “We’re going to be watching this very closely.”

Representatives of the California Thoroughbred Trainers and the Thoroughbred Owners of California reviewed the plan and said they approved.

New CHRB executive director Scott Cheney, who is not part of the six-member board, called for the July 10 emergency meeting. It was the first one held since the board was authorized by the state Legislature last year to stop racing at a track if it found it necessary. The expanded powers came after a sharp increase in horse deaths at Santa Anita.

Animal activists spoke out against Los Alamitos and urged the board to shut down racing in California during the 30-minute public comment period.

Trainer Jenine Sahadi said she had complete confidence in the track’s changes.

“California has made tremendous strides and every day we are striving to do better,” she said before calling out the activists for their “level of ignorance” in veterinary and racing matters.

Board chairman Greg Ferraro told Allred the changes are “very pleasing.”

“You can be assured we’ll be watching your improvement as it goes along,” he said.

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.”