NYRA suspends Baffert 1 year; eligible to return in January

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
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The New York Racing Association suspended trainer Bob Baffert for one year Thursday for repeated medication violations,

A panel credited Baffert for time served from an initial suspension that makes the two-time Triple Crown-winner eligible to saddle horses in New York again Jan. 26. The final decision marks the end of a protracted back and forth about Baffert’s status in the state that began in May 2021.

“This was an impartial and deliberative process that has resulted in a lengthy suspension of the sport’s most prominent trainer,” NYRA President and CEO Dave O’Rourke said in statement. “However, this is not simply about Bob Baffert or any one individual but about protecting the integrity of the sport here in New York. Today’s decision advances that goal.”

The ban is shorter than the two years Churchill Downs sidelined Baffert after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a substance that is not allowed on race day. Retired New York State Supreme Court Justice O. Peter Sherwood, who was serving as the NYRA hearing officer, previously recommended a two-year suspension.

Baffert’s camp asked for a stay of the NYRA suspension that was immediately denied. A message seeking comment from Baffert or his attorney was not immediately returned.

The panel’s decision cannot be appealed through NYRA’s process, which was developed last year after Baffert successfully sued in federal court to get his initial suspension in the state of New York lifted. Baffert is also fighting in federal court against the Churchill Downs ban that made him ineligible to run horses in the Derby in 2022 and ’23.

Under the terms of the suspension agreed to by the panel made up of Saratoga attorney John J. Carusone, New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association executive director Will Alempijevic and New York Race Track Chaplaincy of America leader the Rev. Humberto Chavez, Baffert would be able to be a part of the Belmont Stakes next year.

The panel in its 14-page ruling disagreed with Sherwood over the matter of Baffert “doping” his horses, saying, “The drugs for which use Baffert was cited in three jurisdictions are allowed and commonly used but are nevertheless performance enhancing in the sense that they may suppress injuries and may allow the horse to perform at a normal level in spite of the injury if they are found to be at a level above the allowable threshold.”

Medina Spirit tested positive for the corticosteroid betamethasone, which is not allowed in Kentucky on race day, and was later disqualified. The colt finished third in the Preakness two weeks after the Derby.

Medina Spirit collapsed and died in December in California. An exam found no definitive cause of death.

Baffert-trained Cruel Intention, Eclair, Charlatan, Gamine and Merneith also tested positive for a substance not allowed at that level on race day. Those violations occurred in California, Arkansas or Kentucky; none happened in New York.

Baffert, 69, is a Hall of Fame trainer who has become the face of the sport. He won the Triple Crown twice: in 2015 with American Pharoah and in 2018 with Justify.

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.”