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TrackNotes: Racing's Raging Grassfire

When you were a kid, did you ever play with matches and set the drought-stricken short lawn on fire?

It spreads, fast, and you start doing a clog dance, as if your hair is also on fire, to stomp it out, your mind spinning: Where's the hose?! Let alone getting caught.

I'm not going to comment on how this nation, regionally or as a whole, is handling the coronavirus, but I am firmly in the camp that it's nearly out of control and I surely cannot get it.

Focus in. If you want to know what might happen as America's behemoth team sports chase the money - it's only about the money - head-on to restart, take a look at Thoroughbred horse racing.

Coronavirus has now struck the jockey colony with some of the top riders in America being reined in in more ways than one.

Victor Espinoza, of American Pharoah fame, and Flavian Prat ran at Los Alamitos over the July 4 weekend, and were the first to test positive a week later. Javier Castellano, in Florida at the time, tested positive in March and has since recovered from mild Covid-19 symptoms.

They were two of the Del Mar jockey colony that packed up and rode over at Los Alamitos that weekend. As the week went on, 14 of 15 of them tested positive. Other big names I could glean included Martin Garcia, Luis Saez, Florent Geroux, Umberto Rispoli, Drayden Van Dyke, Eduard Rojas Fernandez, Gerard Melancon and Agapito Delgadillo. Del Mar officials say none are symptomatic.

Many of the infected riders ran at tracks as dispersed as Belmont, Del Mar, Keeneland, Indiana Grand and Prairie Meadows. That looks like a superspread to me.

After beginning its meet July 10, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club shut down the track for this weekend, forcing it to move the San Diego Handicap and Eddie Read Stakes, both Grade II, to some point next week. Del Mar says it will reopen July 24, and the California Horse Racing board has granted July 27 as an extra day of racing.

This corona grassfire will have an enormous impact as we enter the big hunk of summer racing with ramifications on Saratoga, Del Mar, Monmouth and, on Labor Day weekend, Churchill Downs.

Saratoga, whose meet began Thursday, has closed its doors to any jockeys coming from any other track. And, if a jockey leaves Saratoga to ride elsewhere, he can't come back. If a rider had been sidelined and did not ride anywhere else before July 16, the meet's opening day, he could be considered to ride at Saratoga.

It had ramifications just this Saturday. Saratoga has no worries, as the creme de la creme of America's jocks are already there. Including the Ortiz brothers, Velazquez, Santana, Alvarado, Franco, Saez, Lezcano, Carmouche, Castellano, Leparoux, Rosario, and Gaffalione. The colony is made of of 22 jockeys/apprentices. We can only hope there is not a rash of injuries, especially because these guys will be riding a lot on each card.

Down the line, Monmouth, which is hosting its big Haskell Invitational Stakes day Saturday, will not see the handful of top jocks flying in for the card. Joe Bravo, who's HQ'd at Monmouth anyway, will be aboard Dr Post, replacing Irad Ortiz Jr., and Mike Smith rides Authentic, who is trained by Bob Baffert. Baffert has won the Haskell eight times, with runners including Point Given, War Emblem, Lookin at Lucky and, of course, American Pharoah.

What about superjock Smith? Where will he go? His stomping grounds these days, Del Mar, has also banned outside jockeys from coming in. Do we anticipate string pulling?


BREAKING TV NOTE: Apparently Monmouth did allow 1,500 fans into the track for the races Saturday. Looks to me like all the racing personnel wore masks, while the majority of the knucklehead fans did not. There you go.


Maryland and Ohio racing officials have mandated restrictions. Ellis Park, North Henderson, Kentucky has instituted milder restrictions based on testing.

Then, there's the elephant in the room, the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs has not commented on any jockey restrictions. It has already announced it will allow fans to attend, encouraging masks, but hasn't said how many. All I know is that they'll try to get away with whatever they can.

Truly separate rooms or cubicles for each jockey? Have you ever seen the storage area for jockey silks? Massive racks with all the silks hung together. Is that safe? Hand washing at every turn?

Terence Meyocks, president and chief executive officer of the Jockeys' Guild, obviously tried to protect his riders, but he also pointed out how the the fragmentation of racing in general, just like across the 50 states, caused this outbreak.

"We thought we had protocols in place, but then there were more positives," Meyocks said. "Our industry doesn't work well together. And this is one case where [protocols] need to work and we've all got to be on the same page. It's not only the jocks, but the backside, the grooms, the horsemen, and everybody back there. It's very difficult with people close together."

While praising Keeneland and Gulfstream, Meyocks blasted others, without naming names, and described some jock room conditions.

"We talk about social distancing. Spread out the room - no steam room, no sauna. And (some) tracks haven't done it. You just can't do it that way. There have to be minimum standards if they want to continue racing."

Darrell Haire, western regional manager of the Jockeys' Guild, said protocols were not standardized across Santa Anita, Del Mar and Los Alamitos.

Weekly testing and onsite jockey isolation at Santa Anita; no testing, just masks at Los Alamitos; and at Del Mar, testing began only when the spike started.

Earlier this year, track backstretch personnel at Belmont, which was dark at the time, began testing positive. Because horses, grooms, exercise riders and such shuttle between there and Aqueduct, racing at Aqueduct was shut down. Belmont's spring Belmont Stakes meet was delayed. Not a peep about Saratoga until it was given a go for Thursday.

This game-wide A-bomb was dropped from Los Alamitos.

Now, Saratoga, the best meet of the year, appears to be in a good, tough bubble.

Out of the Feds, we get sadistic, malevolent, murderous "leadership." In racing there is no leadership.

Horse racing has pretty much been running most of the year. It has been blessed. Fans have enjoyed it all along. I did not see any marketing efforts on mainstream advertising outlets. Something like "We're OFF, and RUNNING! Really!"

If these restrictions by the various tracks are strictly enforced and the reasonable semblance of racing's ritual summer mileposts continue on, racing will forget how the game, fractured like the shards of an old mirror, failed to take care of what only it had: Real races.

If racing can't see that it needs a coordinating governing body, it can't see anything.


What About Bob
The fragmentation was illustrated again when we learned of the suspension and horse DQs of super trainer Bob "What, Me Worry?" Baffert.

The Arkansas Racing Commission ruled on an appeal by Baffert after the commission found heightened levels of 3-hydroxylidocaine in May 2 Arkansas Derby division winner Charlatan and Gamine, who won an allowance race the same day. Gamine went on to win the Acorn Stakes at Belmont in an eye popping 19-length, race-record victory. Each horse failed two lab tests.

Baffert was suspended for 16 days and both horses were disqualified from their races. Purse money was also forfeited. Charlatan would have lost his Kentucky Derby points, but he's injured and would have missed that race anyway. Gamine's prospects for either the Derby or Kentucky Oaks are uncertain.

Baffert, as he did with Justify, the 2018 Triple Crown "winner," cried "environmental contamination." The therapeutic substance must not be administered less than 72 hours before a race. Gamine's tests were nine times higher than the accepted threshold; Charlatan's double.

Interviewed on NBC Saturday before the Haskell, Baffert said his assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes, saddling the Baffert horses that day, was wearing a Salonpas patch for back soreness and did not realize it had lidocaine in it.

"Touching, bridling them, putting in the bit, tying their tongues, that's when we realized what happened," Baffert said.

Like Orange Frisbeehead in Washington, Baffert said the testing is too much, and he's not worried about his reputation.

"We need to change these rules and the horses should not be penalized. We're like sitting ducks the way they're testing these horses, we're doing our best."

Baffert previously said something got into Justify's Santa Anita Derby feed. He also benefited from a California Horse Racing Board that went dark, including one commissioner who had horses trained by Baffert. They violated their own rules and just couldn't come up with a report before the Kentucky Derby, extended the inquiry through the Triple Crown, and then just dropped it.

Okay, Baffert, lidocaine can be dangerous if a horse does not feel its lameness. It doesn't really matter how it got into the horse. It did. I know you have the owners on your ass, but you've made enough money. Reimburse them, take the rap and do your time.

Uncle Bobby, this is Arkansas, and they don't put up with this crap. This makes 27 on his rap sheet for drug positives. If I print the full name, it'll crash the Beachwood, but there are guidelines for drugs and penalties. Baffert and Barnes were over the line. When he could be a crusader to eliminate horse medications, he's pretty quiet, because that's how he wins.

P.S. Baffert won his ninth Haskell with Authentic today.


Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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