Horse racing hopes for return to normal, with fans, in 2021

Derby, Breeders' Cup champ Authentic named 2020 Horse of the Year
Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The golden sunset over Keeneland provided a picturesque and welcome wrap for horse racing after the pandemic wiped out its spring, cramped marquee stakes races into a crowded schedule and reshuffled the Triple Crown order.

No Triple Crown winner emerged as a result, though the Breeders’ Cup world championships helped make up for that. Many of its best competitors performed at the top of their games on a record-breaking weekend, sparking high expectations for 2021.

The sport just hopes that next year’s schedule returns to normal and that spectators can be in the grandstands enjoying the races.

“It’s been a different feeling, you know?” trainer Bill Mott said last week. “Being a participant, we probably get as excited as the fans when they’re there. It’s like I’ve got a bet on every race we’re participating in. So, I miss the fans.”

“I’ll be glad when everything gets back to normal and we have the fans back,” he said.

The pandemic struck in the middle of qualifying season for the Kentucky Derby, which ended up postponed from the first Saturday in May for the first time since 1945 to Labor Day weekend. It was sandwiched between the Belmont Stakes and Preakness, which ran just over a month ago as the Triple Crown’s final jewel instead of in the middle.

Unusual as that was, the upside was those events and other stakes races still ran. That allowed the sport to maintain continuity as it prepares for what’s next.

“It was a crazy year and a lot of hardships,” Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said Sunday. “We just feel fortunate that we got to keep going and happy that racing continues.”

Baffert has also pledged more oversight in his operation following multiple positive tests for medication violations by several of his horses. That included Gamine, who provided some vindication amid the scrutiny by dominating the Filly and Mare Sprint by 6 1/4 lengths in a record-breaking 1:42.30.

Her race was the first of several record-setters, capping a weekend that offered a hint of which horses to watch for next year’s Kentucky Derby and Oaks as well as the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar in California.

A handful of 2-year-olds showed promise on Friday, with Essential Quality and filly Vequist serving notice as possible contenders following signature wins in the Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies, respectively.

Vequist has a chance to follow the footsteps of her father, Nyquist, who won the 2016 Derby after winning the 2015 Juvenile. For now, she’ll rest in Florida as her handlers contemplate her path as a 3-year-old.

“She will be getting a nice little break right now,” trainer Butch Reid said. “Then we’ll start working toward next year’s campaign with the Oaks as the first big goal.”

Meanwhile, Baffert left no doubt Gamine has more in store as he gushed over her and Authentic for their dominant runs.

Authentic capped the season-ending championships with a wire-to-wire victory in the marquee Classic. His track-record time of 1:59.19 over 1\ miles – hand-timed because of a technical glitch that shut down the track clock – broke 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah’s mark of 2:00.17 here five years ago.

That pretty much rested his case for the Horse of the Year honors, though the question immediately afterward was whether Authentic’s sixth win in eight career starts with two seconds would wrap his own stellar career.

Baffert joked that he had no vote in the matter and immediately deferred to Authentic’s connections, including Eric Gustavson and Michael Behrens, founder of the site that has attracted more than 5,300 happy investors in the colt.

Authentic himself seemed happy and healthy Sunday morning, encouraging Baffert and giving his handlers something to ponder. Not a bad problem to have after ending a strange, disjointed season on a high note.

“We had a reason to smile again in horse racing and show off to people who were watching what a beautiful sport it is with the excitement and the nervousness,” Baffert said.

Preakness winner National Treasure has final workout for Belmont Stakes

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — Preakness winner National Treasure breezed five furlongs in his final workout for the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes.

Working on the main track at Belmont Park with exercise rider Erick Garcia aboard, National Treasure was timed in 59.55 seconds and galloped out six furlongs in 1:11.20 and seven furlongs in 1:25.20. It was the second workout on the track for the Bob Baffert-trained colt.

“He worked very well this morning,” said Jimmy Barnes, Baffert’s top assistant. “It’s a big track and you can find yourself lost out there. Erick did an excellent job working him and now we’re just waiting for the race.”

National Treasure was fourth in the Santa Anita Derby prior to the Preakness on May 20.

Trainer Steve Asmussen’s Red Route One also posted his final work for the final jewel of the Triple Crown, breezing a half-mile in 50.20 seconds over Belmont Park’s dirt training track.

“I thought he went beautiful,” said Toby Sheets, trainer Steve Asmussen’s Belmont-based assistant. “It was nice and fluid and he came back with good energy. I’m very happy with him. We wanted to be out on the track before it got really busy.”

Red Route One finished fourth in the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course, almost five lengths behind National Treasure.

Kentucky Derby winner Mage is not running in the Belmont Stakes.

Churchill Downs moves meet to Ellis Park to examine protocols following 12 horse deaths

churchill downs
Michael Clevenger and Erik Mohn/USA TODAY NETWORK

Churchill Downs will suspend racing and move the remainder of its spring meet to Ellis Park in order to conduct a “top-to-bottom” review of safety and surface protocols in the wake of 12 horse fatalities the past month at the home of the Kentucky Derby.

No single factor has been identified as a potential cause for the fatalities or pattern detected, according to a release, but the decision was made to relocate the meet “in an abundance of caution.”

“What has happened at our track is deeply upsetting and absolutely unacceptable,” Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen said in Friday’s release. “We need to take more time to conduct a top-to-bottom review of all of the details and circumstances so that we can further strengthen our surface, safety and integrity protocols.”

Racing will continue at Churchill Downs through Sunday before shifting to the CDI-owned racing and gaming facility in Henderson, Kentucky. Ellis Park’s meet was scheduled to start July 7 and run through Aug. 27 but will now expand with Friday’s announcement.

Ellis Park will resume racing on June 10.

The move comes a day after track superintendent Dennis Moore conducted a second independent analysis of Churchill Downs’ racing and training surfaces as part of an emergency summit called this week by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) with the track and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Meetings took place in Lexington, Kentucky, and at the Louisville track.

The head of the federally created oversight agency suggested ahead of the summit that it could recommend pausing the meet and that Churchill Downs would accept that recommendation.

Churchill Downs’ release stated that expert testing raised no concerns and concluded that the surface was consistent with the track’s prior measurements. Even so, it chose to relocate “in alignment” with HISA’s recommendation to suspend the meet to allow more time for additional investigation.

“We appreciate their thoughtfulness and cooperation through these challenging moments,” HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said in a statement. “We will continue to seek answers and work with everyone involved to ensure that horses are running safely at Churchill Downs again in the near future.”

Carstanjen insisted that relocating the remainder of the spring meet to Ellis Park would maintain the industry ecosystem with minor disruption. He also said he was grateful to Kentucky horsemen for their support as they work to find answers.

Rick Hiles, the president of Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, questioned the move, especially since there’s no conclusive evidence that Churchill Downs’ surface is the problem.

“We all want to find solutions that will improve safety for horses,” Hiles said in a statement. “However, we need to discuss allowing trainers and veterinarians to use therapeutic medications that greatly lessen the risk of breakdowns.

“Drastic steps, such as relocating an active race meet, should only be considered when it is certain to make a difference.”

The latest development comes a day after Churchill Downs and HISA each implemented safety and performance standards to address the spate of deaths.

HISA will conduct additional post-entry screening of horses to identify those at increased risk for injury. Its Integrity and Welfare Unit also will collect blood and hair samples for all fatalities for use while investigating a cause.

Churchill Downs announced it would immediately limit horses to four starts during a rolling eight-week period and impose ineligibility standards for poor performers. The track is also pausing incentives, such as trainer start bonuses and limiting purse payouts to the top five finishers instead of every finisher.