The Week in Review: Improbable Headlines Fueled by Winds of Change

Fair Grounds | Sarah Andrew

By

The span between Memorial Day and the third leg of the Triple Crown is often a quiet one in the racing world. Not this year, though. Here's a shaking-out of a reporter's notebook from a week that generated some unexpected headlines.

Louisiana's move to more lenient medication rules: TDN's survey of seven trainers–Steve Asmussen, Brad Cox, Michael Stidham, Tom Amoss, Al Stall, Dallas Stewart, Cherie DeVaux–spoke volumes about the announcement by the Louisiana Racing Commission that it would be implementing “emergency” standards that softened a number of drug-regulating standards as of June 8.

Of particular concern are the changed withdrawal times for the controversial bronchodilator Clenbuterol and the substance Depo-Medrol, a steroid injected into joints to treat pain and swelling. The relaxed policies represent a drastic roll-back of the long-term national effort to implement safer medication standards while at the same time making it more difficult for horses to ship back and forth from Louisiana to states that are regulated by the more stringent Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) codes.

Louisiana, along with West Virginia, are two states that are currently exempt from HISA rules because of a federal court stay that will be in effect at least until the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals makes a ruling in a separate lawsuit in which the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association is alleging that HISA is unconstitutional.

While not every comment from the above-named trainers was critical, and several did advocate a wait-and-see approach that suggested the rules might be revamped in the wake of widespread outcry before the Fair Grounds season begins Nov. 17, their reactions were laced with descriptors such as “astonished,” “quite concerning” “reckless abandon,” “a big step backwards,” “unfair playing field,” “a setback,” and a “lack of regard for the safety of the horse and the riders.”

Evangeline Downs and Louisiana Downs are currently the operational Thoroughbred meets in Louisiana, and their barn areas are largely populated by in-state outfits that don't ship between jurisdictions as often as the stables that compete at the higher-tiered Fair Grounds meet.

Should the Louisiana commission proceed as planned, the true implications of the lax drug policy will be evident by the first week of December, which is when both Turfway Park and Oaklawn Park open for their 2024-25 race meets.

Both of those tracks stand to gain significant horsepower if there is an outflux from Fair Grounds, and Louisiana's status as a well-traveled pipeline for GI Kentucky Derby prep races is at risk of being in jeopardy, with A-list aspirants for the Triple Crown series possibly being re-routed elsewhere to earn qualifying points.

Belmont-at-Spa Mini-Meet: No Triple Crown being on the line actually seems to be shaping up as a plus for this coming week's four-day GI Belmont S. festival. The novelty of the brief upstate meet is generally being met with enthusiasm as the event nears, and with no horse in line to sweep the series, we'll be spared the endless kibitzing and arguing about the New York Racing Association (NYRA)'s decision to truncate the 1 1/2-miles “test of a champion” to 1 1/4 miles so the race won't have to start at an angle on the far turn.

Lost in the shuffle is another Grade I distance change, this one an elongation. Friday's Acorn S. will be conducted at nine furlongs for the first time.

The Acorn has been a one-mile fixture at Belmont Park (and occasionally Aqueduct) since 1931. Last year, NYRA extended it to 1 1/16 miles, but there is no established starting point for that dirt distance at Saratoga, so the only realistic options were to run the race at a mile out of the Wilson Chute, or extend it to nine furlongs. Either way, it's a little unusual for a Grade I stakes to be conducted at three different distances over a three-year period.

Although moving the Belmont S. to Saratoga for two years is a necessity because of the teardown and $455-million rebuild of Belmont Park, the venue switch is also an important litmus test for how NYRA might restructure its year-round calendar once the new Belmont opens and Aqueduct closes as anticipated.

NYRA management has not publicly committed to what its racing seasons might look like in the years to come. But it's difficult to imagine the New York schedule will consist of just 40 days of racing at Saratoga from mid-July to Labor Day and roughly 10 months of year-round racing at the new Belmont. A seasonal shift to Saratoga for a similar mini-meet once the Belmont S. is back at its permanent downstate home seems like a logical option, perhaps occupying some of the June downtime that currently exists on the national racing calendar once the Triple Crown series concludes.

And remember, if all goes according to plan, foals of 2024 will be the next crop to compete for the Triple Crown under “normal” conditions.

The Derby at Churchill on the first Saturday in May isn't going anywhere. But the 2025 series will feature a 150th Preakness run at the half-demolished Pimlico Race Course, which is also slated to undergo a teardown and rebuild. The Belmont S. next year is again scheduled for Saratoga at 10 furlongs.

In 2026, the Preakness will be staged at Laurel Park with the Belmont S. reverting downstate and to 12 furlongs.

The Triple Crown of 2027 will be back to traditional tracks and distances, so long as there are no major delays in any of the projects, meaning the Derby at Churchill, the Preakness at the new “Pimlico Plus” two weeks after that, and the Belmont S. three weeks after that in its second year back at its namesake track.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood (Casino at Penn National): When world-acclaimed jockey Frankie Dettori embarked on a Santa Anita-based swan song in 2023 that was expected to lead to his retirement from a highly acclaimed global raceriding career, who could have predicted that the now 53-year-old master of the saddle would not only extend his stateside stay into 2024, but continue to hit the road by competing at smaller tracks like Penn National and the mid-sized Monmouth Park?

Yet that's precisely what happened this past weekend, when Dettori accepted two mounts on the biggest evening of racing at Penn National and won with both of them, piloting First World War (War Front) to victory in Friday's GIII Penn Mile and scoring aboard Poolside With Slim (Ire) (Churchill {Ire}) in the $150,000 Penn Oaks.

Dettori then decided to continue east to the Jersey shore for four Saturday engagements at Monmouth, where he won the $100,000 Jersey Derby with Twirling Point (Twirling Candy).

Although the smaller American venues were a touch out of character for the multiple winner of British riding titles (Dettori had never ridden at Penn National, and hadn't appeared at Monmouth since going 0-for-8 when the Breeders' Cup was there in 2007), the margins of victory were classic, well-timed, Frankie-styled scores: Two noses and a head.

Dettori wasn't done with his flying-dismount road show after only two stops. He was booked to ride at Churchill Downs on Sunday in the GIII Old Forrester Mint Julep S. (results not available at deadline for this column), then planned to continue to Saratoga for next weekend's festival meet.

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