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.

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.”