Optimism rising about future of Pimlico with rebuild looming

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Frankie Brothers walked into the grandstand at Pimlico Race Course in the late 1980s and early ’90s with his head on a swivel.

“I always made sure I knew where the exit was because if somebody dropped a cigarette or something like that, that place would’ve went up in flames,” the longtime trainer said. “Just an old, historic place.”

Pimlico is still that old, historic place as it’s set to host the 146th Preakness on Saturday. While Bob Baffert-trained Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit failing a postrace drug test hangs over this year’s Preakness, there’s a renewed sense of long-term optimism about the home of the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown.

After years of uncertainty during which the building continued to deteriorate, the owners of the track and government officials reached an agreement to rebuild Pimlico and keep the Preakness in Baltimore.

“Coming together and getting that done was pretty sensational on their part,” said Gary McGuigan, executive vice president of the Maryland Stadium Authority that will oversee design and construction. “Now, do we have a lot of work to do? Sure. Getting operational and financial and land-transfer agreements in place is still a lot of work to do, but, yeah I’d say there’s optimism that it’s moving forward to getting completed.”

There’s still no timetable on when shovels will go into the ground, and work may not be completed until sometime in 2023 – perhaps in time for the Preakness that year, with a chance that it’s not ready until the 2024 Triple Crown. But after track problems at nearby Laurel Park moved racing to Pimlico earlier than normal this spring, there has never been more appreciation for the old place that’s set to get a completely overhaul in the coming years.

“It’s just part of history,” said Brothers, who won the 1991 Preakness with Hansel. “It’s just a special place.”

The project, which includes work at Laurel, comes at a cost of $375 million in bonds and is still in the planning stages. An architectural firm that signed on in February is assessing the situation, and McGuigan pointed out there are still many more agreements that need to be signed before a wrecking ball is on site.

“It is a facility that’s been in disrepair and unfortunately some things out of people’s control, but it needs to be replaced and we’re really looking forward to the day when we can put on the Preakness in the kind of environment that it deserves,” said Craig Fravel, CEO of 1/ST Racing, which owns Pimlico. “It’s a really nice thing to have something to look forward and a process that is well underway.”

It’s coming. Even the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t alter the plans for Pimlico, which include shifting the oval track 30 degrees to make better use of the land and making it a multiuse facility for the weeks when horses aren’t running there.

Ordinarily, that’s just three weeks or so each year. But after the main surface at Laurel didn’t respond well enough to winter maintenance repairs, racing in Maryland shifted to Pimlico two weeks early and will continue there until further notice.

“We’ve had some difficulties with the racetrack at Laurel,” Fravel said. “You wake up sometimes with a dozen surprises, but people have been remarkably patient. I think having (upcoming construction) to look forward to is an important part of this overall mix here.”

The important part for the city was keeping the Preakness in Baltimore, rather than a relocation to Laurel or perhaps out of state if Pimlico became so dilapidated it couldn’t continue hosting the race. Those fears are gone now, replaced by a waiting game until construction of the new Pimlico begins.

“The Preakness is the second jewel of the Triple Crown,” Fravel said. “It deserves a home that matches the stature of that event and the place the Triple Crown holds in the traditions of thoroughbred racing.”

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.”