In an abnormal year, Breeders’ Cup offers a bit of normalcy

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — This year’s Triple Crown slate unfolded over 3+ months instead of six weeks and shuffled the marquee Kentucky Derby from its traditional first Saturday in May to Labor Day weekend – as the middle jewel.

Numerous tracks canceled meets and some returned with abbreviated schedules. Many cards went off without the noise of spectators, demonstrating the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on horse racing that continues to this day.

While it has made for a strange year and compacted path to this weekend’s $31 million Breeders’ Cup world championships at Keeneland, the 14 races running Friday and Saturday at the picturesque track provides some normalcy after a season of upheaval.

“It’s certainly getting back to normal in a feel way,” trainer Ken McPeek said this week. “It’ll be exciting to get fans back in. I know that a lot of them miss it, but I also know that a lot of them are watching real close. The sport’s done a good job staying out there in the limelight to some extent.”

High-quality competition helps and once again could determine the Eclipse Award favorites as the year’s best in several divisions. Saturday’s marquee $6 million Classic highlights the depth with a rematch between Belmont Stakes champ Tiz the Law and Derby winner Authentic, the Bob Baffert-trained pupil who went wire to wire and beat the race favorite by 1 1/4 lengths at Churchill Downs.

And yet, both 3-year-olds are listed as betting choices below veterans and Baffert stablemates Improbable (5-2) and Maximum Security (7-2), who crossed the finish line first in last year’s Derby before becoming the first in 145 years to be disqualified for interference.

Not a bad way to enter the 10-horse Classic with a reigning Derby winner, a 3-year-old champion (Maximum Security) who has six wins and two seconds since that controversy, and another colt on a three-race winning streak.

“I’ve never been this strong before in the Classic,” Baffert said. “Usually, I’d be happy to have just one of those in the Classic. To have three is pretty amazing.”

The Classic nearly had all three Triple Crown race winners before filly and Preakness winner Swiss Skydiver opted to compete against her own gender in the $2 million Distaff. She’s the 2-1 second choice behind Monomoy Girl (8-5), who won this race two years ago and Eclipse Award as the top 3-year-old filly.

Monomoy Girl has returned from missing 2019 because of a pulled muscle and colic to win all three starts in 2020, including the Grade 1 La Troienne at Churchill Downs in September. Trainer and Louisville native Brad Cox briefly considered another tuneup before the Distaff but cited her previous competition schedule and said, “it seems to be working pretty well.”

Five feature races for 2-year-olds highlight Friday’s card with nine on Saturday on dirt and turf.

Compared to previous years where Triple Crown qualifiers and other marquee races are spread throughout the spring and summer, the reshuffled schedule has helped many horses run their best entering the season finale.

“The Breeders’ Cup is perhaps the only sport in which the product on the field has actually benefited from the pandemic,” NBC Sports analyst Randy Moss said in a network release. “Because many racetracks were closed in the spring, horses couldn’t run as often, and now they are fresher and healthier in November than ever before.

“Now if only there were fans in the seats,” he said.

Indeed, horsemen have lamented the absence of fans at tracks and particularly at a venue located in the heart of Bluegrass horse country.

Opinions have been more mixed on whether empty grandstands will benefit horses’ concentration this weekend. Considering concerns about whether the Breeders’ Cup would occur at all, the question almost seems welcome.

“This has been, you know, a crazy year,” trainer Mark Casse said. “I say all along, training horses is like putting a puzzle together. And this year, it’s like putting a puzzle together with no pictures, no corners or edges.”

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.”