Horse racing on slow track with efforts to address diversity

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Horse racing returns to Kentucky this weekend for another signature event it hopes will garner the attention of a mainstream audience.

While it wants to be considered among North America’s major sports, the industry has so far lagged behind others in terms of how it is actively addressing systemic racism concerns during a nationwide reckoning on the issue. Owners Greg Harbut and Ray Daniels hope the Breeders’ Cup signals the start of a real conversation in horse racing, but they aren’t waiting around for change in an industry they feel has been largely tone-deaf due to a lack of prominent Black stakeholders in place to guide the sport during turbulent times.

“Conversations are beginning, but at this stage, that’s all we’re receiving is audio,” said Harbut, who co-owns Kentucky Derby horse Necker Island and is co-founder along with Daniels of an organization aimed at increasing minority involvement in racing. “We need some video to match the audio. When that happens, I think you’ll see things change. But the industry has to decide where it’s at now. Does it really want to see change?”

Unlike golf using the springboard of Tiger Woods’ dominance to champion diversity initiatives, tennis diversifying its leadership group and seeing an influx of players since Venus and Serena Williams burst on to the scene or the National Hockey League hiring Kim Davis as executive vice president to oversee social impact, horse racing has been slow to market to, attract and hire minorities outside of jobs on the backstretch and as jockeys.

“They have kind of hid from the problem,” Daniels said. “A lot of organizations feel as long as it’s not happening inside my organization, it’s probably not a place for me to comment or a place for me to take a stand.”

By Derby week in September, there was an acknowledgement that the sport is “not doing enough quickly enough” and has “not successfully created an environment in which everyone feels welcome or included.” Churchill Downs said it’s “committed to taking real, concrete action to address institutional roadblocks to progress and playing our part in advancing the changes America so desperately needs.”

Still, being slow to change isn’t hurting the sport financially.

Even during the pandemic that has emptied grandstands, business is thriving, with record money being wagered all over the country, a trend that’s expected to continue Friday and Saturday with 14 Breeders’ Cup world championship races at Keeneland worth $28 million.

But horse racing has been unable to bring in fresh faces with no previous connection to the sport, especially minorities. By founding the Ed Brown Society named for the 19th century Black trainer, Harbut and Daniels hope they can create a pipeline for Black executives and sprout a generation of new fans to diversify a crowd that’s predominantly white on days without big races.

“When you go to the track, you see a 98, 97% really Caucasian audience or crowd that is partaking in the sport,” Daniels said. “When you do have a chance to bring other cultures to the track, they are quite shocked that this is not something that the industry is working on across the whole country.”

Some of the few people of color in positions of influence – including Jason Wilson, president and CEO of stats site Equibase, and Alicia Hughes, director of communications for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association – struggle to effect change in a stubborn sport.

Wilson learned early that endorsing diversity means nothing without policies and procedures to address it. While much of horse racing was silent in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, Hughes helped craft the NTRA’s statement saying, “The systemic racism that has poisoned our country cannot be allowed to inflict its pain on one more generation” and pushed for more actions.

“Racing is kind of just waking up to the fact that it could do more and it needs to kind of do more,” Wilson said.

Daniels believes that change has to start from the top and trickle down, a struggle because horse racing has no central governing body and therefore no national marketing effort outside major events. But Daniels and other Black members of the horse racing community have started some conversations and reported largely positive experiences.

“Whenever you have a small number of a certain group, there really is no issue, per se, because nobody else feels threatened,” Wilson said. “We’re not even at the point where there are enough people where the system’s going to really just have a true issue.”

One of the few black, U.S.-born jockeys on the circuit, Kendrick Carmouche also has experienced the best of the sport, heartened by the widespread response when he broke his right leg last year. After kneeling with fellow jockeys in the paddock before the first race when racing returned to New York over the summer, he understands actions like those are done for him because not many in the industry can empathize.

“I think they understand what’s going on, but they don’t want to be publicly out there with it,” Carmouche said. “A lot of people, if they don’t believe in it, they’d rather not set their mind up to think that way.”

Harbut has experienced it but hopes one day he will be able go to a turf club or enter a suite without worrying about having to explain he’s not lost or being asked if needs directions – that “this is actually where you belong.”

“Not that you need anything special done,” he said. “You just want to be treated like a regular person.”

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.”