Horse Racing

‘Are You Calling Me A Liar, Sir?’ Fireworks On Day 3 of NYRA/Baffert Hearing As Dutrow Case Recalled



Wednesday’s session of the ongoing hearing between the New York Racing Association and embattled trainer Bob Baffert finished with fireworks during the testimony of retired New York state steward Stephen Lewandowski.

NYRA concluded the presentation of its case just before lunch, and Baffert’s attorneys called their first few witnesses in the afternoon.

Lewandowski was called on behalf of Baffert and, under questioning from Baffert’s attorneys, said he had no dealings with Baffert on any integrity or rule violation issues in his time serving as a steward in the state. Lewandowski said he called Baffert sometime after he was suspended by NYRA to offer his support.

“I feel like he’s been unfairly taken advantage of,” Lewandowski said. “He’s never had any problems in New York.”

On cross examination, NYRA attorney Henry Greenberg questioned that point by Lewandowski, bringing up the controversy about Baffert’s non-coupled entry in the 2018 Belmont Stakes. Baffert saddled both Triple Crown winner Justify in that race as well as Restoring Hope, who was piloted by Florent Geroux. Mike Repole, co-owner of Vino Rosso and Noble Indy, would later complain to New York Post writer Tom Pedulla that Geroux put in a “reckless” ride aboard Restoring Hope, possibly in an attempt to block some of Justify’s competitors.

Headlines in the Post questioned officials’ decision not to launch an investigation into the race. Lewandowski said that he eventually spoke to Repole but also that he did not recall Repole’s complaint. He said he did not speak to Baffert about the incident, and said he did not recall subsequent media coverage questioning the stewards’ lack of investigation. He also said he did not recall eventually reversing course and speaking to Geroux, nor did he recall a meeting with the other stewards, who Greenberg suggested disagreed with each other on the best way to handle the situation.

Then, Greenberg asked Lewandowski about his support of Rick Dutrow, who was suspended 10 years and fined $50,000 after one of his horses tested positive for butorphanol and three hypodermic needles were discovered in a desk drawer in Dutrow’s office. Following his retirement in 2019, Lewandowski wrote a letter to the Gaming Commission and to the Queens County District Attorney saying that Braulio Baeza Jr., then a NYRA steward, told him the syringes were planted.

Baeza later denied he told Lewandowski this.

Baffert attorney Clark Brewster objected to the scope of Greenberg’s questions but was overruled by Justice O. Peter Sherwood, the presiding hearing officer. As Greenberg asked about the fallout from Lewandowski’s letter, Lewandowski became agitated and began shouting. The New York commission released a statement following publication of Lewandowksi’s letter in the media. Lewandowski also said he heard from New York’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, though it’s not clear in what capacity.

“How can they run something without even speaking to me?!” Lewandowski cried. “I know, NYRA does the same thing. They just decide to suspend Bob Baffert without even telling him. How is that right? You’re an attorney, you tell me. … That’s what you’re doing to Bob Baffert. How about talking to him about charges in Kentucky that haven’t even been filed yet. … If I were him I wouldn’t answer any questions. … He’s a person who has been so kind as to show his horses to everybody who asked. All of NYRA’s executives went down there, and Bob pulled him out and they took pictures with him and did all that.

“I never went down there, and why? I thought it was improper to do that.

“And another thing about Rick Dutrow, I never spoke to him, before, until I retired.”

Lewandowski said he asked about how Dutrow could go about reapplying for a license, and passed that information along.

“It took six months to even get an answer from the Gaming Commission, whose job is to protect people like him, not hurt them,” Lewandowski yelled to Greenberg, who by then had stopped questioning him. “It’s their job, that’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re here for the people, not for purses. And nowhere and no how has these charges ever been … 10 years and $50,000 … and you know another thing? They took his $50,000. There was an ongoing push to get Rick Dutrow reinstated. They made him pay $50,000 and then here’s a man who’s totally destroyed. Has no money. Nothing. He’s completely broke. They made him pay $50,000 and then told him he can’t be licensed. … I would never do that to a licensee. I would never take your money when I know you can’t work.”

As to the dispute in stories between himself and Baeza, Lewandowski let loose.

“Braulio Baeza, one of us is lying. It’s either Braulio Baeza or me. Are you accusing me of lying?” yelled Lewandowski. “One of us is lying. Why would Braulio Baeza speak to me about Rick Dutrow, who he had nothing to do with. One of us is lying. And I’m not accusing anybody. But it’s either him or me. And believe me, he said it to more than one person.

“…Are you calling me a liar, sir? Are you calling me a liar? I am not a liar … I thought Braulio Baeza was a good man. One of us had the information to help a man who was wiped out.

“…Braulio Baeza is not a nice person, no.”

Wednesday’s session also included testimony from NYRA lead equine safety investigator Tony Patricola, NYRA veterinary services director Dr. Anthony Verderosa, general manager of NYRA Bets Matthew Feig, and vice president of marketing for NYRA and NYRA Bets Donald Scott. At the start of Baffert’s case, testimony came from Hall of Fame jockeys Mike Smith and John Velazquez.

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  • Wednesday’s session opened with Sherwood chastising Baffert attorney Brewster for providing a statement to media about Tuesday’s proceedings. Greenberg entered the Paulick Report’s recap of the Jan. 25 hearing into the record because it contained the statement, distributed on behalf of Brewster by public relations and crisis communications firm Trident DMG. Greenberg called the statement “highly unprofessional at best.”You can find the Jan. 25 recap here.

    Baffert attorney W. Craig Robertson said he had nothing to do with the statement.

    Brewster tried to say Greenberg posted similar content on his firm’s website. This publication has not received statements from the firm.

    “Fortunately this proceeding is not going forward before a jury,” said Sherwood. “I’d be much more sharp-tongued if we had a jury here, sir. I do think these kinds of comments by a lawyer during a proceeding are inappropriate. I would ask you to restrain yourself.”

  • NYRA’s attorneys had two primary focuses from witnesses on Wednesday: the potential for therapeutic drugs to impact pre-race veterinary examinations and injury, and the public reaction to Baffert’s recent high-profile drug positive in the Kentucky Derby. Verderosa and Patricola both testified that therapeutic, permitted medications given outside time regulations could make their jobs more difficult in terms of identifying sore horses. They also testified to the danger posed to jockeys, grooms, and veterinary personnel by catastrophic injuries suffered on track.Baffert’s counsel clarified that neither official had fielded complaints or themselves flagged horses for further examination from Baffert’s barn on the basis they were unsound. (Baffert is primarily based in California and does not, according to Patricola, maintain a barn in New York year-round.) Robertson also pointed out that this summer, when protestors demonstrated their upset over the equine fatality rate in New York, Baffert did not have any trainees in the list of dead horses.
  • Both Feig and Scott agreed they received feedback from NYRA Bets customers following Baffert’s announcement that Medina Spirit had a positive post-race drug test. Feig in particular cited a 20 percent increase in customer service queries on the day Baffert held his press conference, and continued with an elevated number of requests from players the next day.“We had a lot of questions regarding, ‘Are you going to refund my wager because I bet on the second-place horse, Mandaloun?’ or ‘Are you going to give me the money I’m owed?’” recalled Feig.

    Feig said there is no mechanism for NYRA Bets or any of its competitors to refund parimutuel wagers based on a change in race results after the race goes official. To date, Medina Spirit has not been disqualified from the Kentucky Derby.

    Feig said he also heard from customers with queries or complaints about other trainers, any time there are headlines about an integrity issue. That includes Linda Rice, who had her license suspended by the New York Gaming Commission but who is still permitted to race at NYRA while she is appealing that case.

  • Feig also said that in the course of applying for the required licenses for NYRA Bets to take wagers from customers outside New York, the organization gets a fair number of questions from regulators about various aspects of its business, including finances, policy, and integrity proceedings. The organization also deals with banks and credit card companies to enable it to do business. Feig said that he did get questions “in passing” about the Baffert situation after the announcement of Medina Spirit’s positive from regulators, financial entities, underwriters, and banking institutions. Regulators did not ask him questions about Rice or Wayne Potts, who is currently being investigated by NYRA.
  • Robertson was interested in the fact NYRA Bets saw a wagering record during the time Baffert was permitted to run horses at Saratoga. He and Feig examined handle figures for a couple of races in which Baffert trained entrants. Feig pointed out that one was a stakes race, which usually gets higher handle than non-stakes races, and the other was the start of the Pick 5 and Pick 6. Typically, Feig said he projects and analyzes handle based upon the number of entries and the wagering menu for that race; trainer of entrants don’t normally factor into his forecasts.
  • Jockeys Mike Smith and John Velazquez testified on Baffert’s behalf, saying they have always felt safe riding his horses and agreeing they would like to ride more for him. Both said they did not believe Baffert is a threat to the integrity of racing, nor have they ever witnessed Baffert do anything against the rules of racing during their time spent in his barn.

 





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