From Derby DQ to doping, a chaotic year in horse racing

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Maximum Security crossed the finish line first in the 2019 Kentucky Derby. What happened next set horse racing off on a yearlong odyssey of chaos: from a historic DQ to doping, from lawsuits to a pandemic, and now a Triple Crown turned upside down.

Amidst the uncertainty, Tiz the Law has emerged. A victory in the 146th Derby on Saturday would put the colt bred in upstate New York in position to become racing’s 14th Triple Crown winner going into next month’s Preakness.

“If he won it, he’d have an asterisk,” rival owner Jack Wolf said. “I’d rather have an asterisk than not have it.”

The coronavirus upended the Triple Crown, turning the series from a five-week sprint into a 15-week marathon and scrambling the order. Instead of leading off on the first Saturday in May, the Kentucky Derby shifted to Labor Day weekend. It’s being sandwiched between the Belmont Stakes in mid-June and the Preakness in early October.

It took until days before this year’s race to confirm last year’s Derby winner.

Maximum Security’s owners sued in an effort to overturn the decision by Churchill Downs stewards that disqualified their colt for interference, an unprecedented move. Last week, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit by Gary and Mary West. They have dropped any further appeals. Country House, the second-place finisher, was declared the winner.

In March, Maximum Security’s trainer Jason Servis was indicted, along with over two dozen other trainers, assistants, veterinarians and pharmacists, in connection with a horse doping ring. Federal authorities allege that Servis was part of a network of racing insiders that sold, distributed and drugged horses to enhance their performance. Defense attorneys are waiting to review all of the government’s evidence against their clients. No trial date has been set.

In late February, Maximum Security won the Saudi Cup. However, the Wests have yet to receive $10 million in purse money. It’s been withheld by race organizers pending the outcome of their investigation, which was prompted by Servis’ indictment. Maximum Security has never tested positive for an illegal substance.

The Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia said the coronavirus pandemic has delayed the process, though it said purse money would be paid out to the owners of horses that finished second through 10th.

After Servis’ indictment, the Wests hired Bob Baffert, a two-time Triple Crown winner, to train Maximum Security.

Still, the hits kept coming.

The coronavirus brought the nation to a virtual standstill in mid-March. Racing eventually resumed and fans went from cheering at the rail to yelling at their laptops and phones while betting online. Fans weren’t allowed at the Belmont Stakes. At first, Churchill Downs was going to allow a limited number of spectators, then decided against it.

“Who would have ever thought you’d run the Kentucky Derby with no fans?” Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith said.

There’s no word yet on whether fans will be allowed at the Preakness.

Not having fans at any of the Triple Crown races dents the massive economic boost received by the host tracks and cities.

The sport already was on edge after a rash of horse deaths at Santa Anita and other tracks that extended into this year.

“What could go wrong now?” wondered Baffert, whose wife regularly asks him: “What’s the latest? Any more Scud missiles drop?”

Several landed close to home throughout the spring and summer.

On the same day the Kentucky Derby would have been run, Baffert had two horses entered at Oaklawn Park. Charlatan won a division of the Arkansas Derby and filly Gamine won a lesser race. Both later tested positive for lidocaine, a numbing agent that is considered a Class 2 drug. Both horses were disqualified and stripped of their purse money. Baffert is appealing his 15-day suspension, which could be heard by the Arkansas Racing Commission in mid-September.

Gamine is the early even-money favorite for the $1 million Kentucky Oaks on Friday.

In early June, Baffert grieved the loss of Arrogate, the champion 3-year-old male horse of 2016. Under Baffert’s tutelage, Arrogate became North America’s all-time leading money winner. The horse was euthanized at age 7 after becoming ill.

Charlatan and Nadal were Baffert’s top two Derby candidates. Charlatan was sidelined by a minor injury; Nadal got hurt and had to be retired. The five-time Derby winning trainer brought two other colts to Louisville.

“I can’t wait until 2020 is over,” Baffert said. “It’s just one big asterisk.”

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 on Saturday 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.”