SARATOGA SPRINGS — There was a little extra spring in the steps, and a little extra cheer around barn 86.
Well, not entirely.
They’ve cleared quarantine; they haven’t cleared the entry box.
Trainer Kenny McPeek’s barn, a short walk across 5th Avenue from the Oklahoma Training Track, had been in lockdown at Saratoga Race Course since July 11, when a horse trained by Jorge Abreu and housed in one of the stalls there tested positive for Equine Herpesvirus-1.
McPeek’s operation was placed in 21-day quarantine, which meant his horses couldn’t mingle with the general horse population in training or racing. The New York Racing Association came up with a plan to ensure that McPeek could keep his horses training and fit while honoring the quarantine rules, but races were out, a stinging blow to a barn that had some stars and younger horses primed for big efforts early in the meet.
The quarantine was lifted on schedule Sunday, but McPeek was seething over the fact that he won’t be able to get his horses into races until Friday. He said he was under the impression that he could run them when the quarantine expired, but he was denied entry for the racing cards on Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday. On the NYRA circuit, cards are drawn 72 hours in advance; McPeek claims he didn’t know that his horses wouldn’t be eligible to enter races that were drawn before the quarantine expired, but would be run after it.
Friday’s card is the first for which the 72-hour draw itself falls outside the quarantine period.
McPeek blamed Braulio Baeza Jr., one of three stewards overseeing NYRA racing and the one designated by the New York State Gaming Commission, for pulling the rug out on his plans to enter races immediately after the quarantine ended.
“I find that what the state steward decided was just beyond incomprehensible,” McPeek said Sunday morning. “We can train in the general population, but they won’t let us race today, Wednesday or Thursday, which makes no sense whatsoever.
“I find it, in my 35 years, the poorest decision by a steward in my career. By far. It’s a lot of work, it’s been bad enough for three weeks, and all this is adding insult to injury.”
Baeza said he couldn’t comment on McPeek’s comments or situation because it had turned into a legal matter.
McPeek hired Drew Mollica, a longtime jockey agent who built a new career on the backstretch over 10 years ago as an attorney specializing in racing-related matters, to find some legal avenue for McPeek’s complaints to be heard.
He has praised NYRA for accommodating his barn’s training needs during the quarantine and for taking entries for this week’s races, but questioned “Does the left hand not know what the right hand is doing?” after the state steward then denied the entries.
“He said his viewpoint was that because they’re in quarantine, they’re ineligible to race,” McPeek said. “They haven’t missed a beat [in training]. We’ve been following protocol, we’re doing everything. … You’re talking about three days of we had seven or eight horses scheduled to run. The bad thing about it is — and this is disturbing to me — we were told repeatedly we could run on Aug. 1, so I entered for Aug. 1. And we’ve got clients that made plane reservations, Simply Ravishing was supposed to run in the New York Stallion Stakes [on Wednesday], we’ve got jock calls, and the day of entry, Baeza decides we can’t run, can’t enter.
“In the short run, it gets everybody’s attention that, hey, we want some answers to the why. We want to see the rule, we want to be able to comprehend it and we want some clarity on the other side of it. We think it was a nonsensical decision, no basis for it whatsoever.”
It wasn’t all grouchiness for McPeek on Sunday morning.
He was finally able to get his horses back into the regular flow of training on the main track and Oklahoma. During the quarantine, he had been restricted to a special 11:00 a.m.-12:30 p.m. on the Oklahoma only.
“Good to be outta jail,” he cheerily said to fellow trainer Christophe Clement, as McPeek walked behind his star filly Swiss Skydiver through the Oklahoma barn area on their way to the main track for a workout.
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