Trainer Bob Baffert hoisting the Kentucky Derby trophy for a record seventh time after Medina Spirit’s victory
On June 2, Churchill Downs Inc. suspended trainer Bob Baffert from running horses at any of its racetracks, including its flagship facility in Louisville, Ky., for two years, meaning the sport’s most recognizable face and name will not be eligible to add to his record number of Kentucky Derby victories until 2024, at the earliest.
The New York Racing Association is similarly taking steps to ban Baffert, scheduling a Sept. 27 hearing where the Hall of Fame trainer and his attorneys will have an opportunity to respond to the statement of charges against him.
The actions by these two major racing associations – each exercising their private property rights – were triggered by the failed drug test of Medina Spirit, who was found to have impermissible levels of betamethasone in his system after crossing the line first in the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 1. The win was Baffert’s seventh in the Derby, giving him one more – at least for now – than Ben Jones, whose runners won the roses six times from 1938-’52.
But there is a very good chance Medina Spirit will be disqualified from his victory and placed last whenever the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission gets around to conducting a hearing on the matter. If Medina Spirit has the Derby title taken away, you can bet this case will work its way through civil courts over the next several years.
A Kentucky Derby drug disqualification would be an embarrassment to the sport and to the brand that Churchill Downs Inc. cherishes so much – and profits from greatly. Medina Spirit’s failed test came less than eight months after Gamine tested positive for the same corticosteroid after finishing third as the odds-on favorite in the Kentucky Oaks – the second most important race held annually at Churchill Downs. She was disqualified and Baffert was fined $1,500 for the medication violation.
Baffert blamed withdrawal guidelines for Gamine’s failed drug test. In the case of Medina Spirit, he said something called “cancel culture” led to the suspension by Churchill Downs officials. Baffert took his bizarre blame game on a media tour for several days where he denied ever using betamethasone on a horse (except, presumably, for Gamine) and complained that “we live in a different world now. This, this America is different.”
And then, one week later, it was … oops, never mind. Baffert’s team did treat Medina Spirit with betamethasone, he admitted in a written statement, but it was in an ointment called Otomax designed for ear infections in dogs the trainer said was used to treat a skin rash Medina Spirit developed a month before the Kentucky Derby. This was “good” betamethasone, he and his attorneys argued, not the injectable form of the drug that was given to Gamine.
And then, wisely, Baffert left the talking up to his attorneys.
The damage was already done. The trainer had become a sad punchline on late night TV and even on the ESPY award show on ESPN. The sport and its marquee event suffered collateral damage.
Churchill Downs tried to restore some sense of integrity with its temporary suspension of Baffert on May 9 and the more definitive two-year suspension handed him on June 2 after the split sample also came back positive for betamethasone.
“Reckless practices and substance violations that jeopardize the safety of our equine and human athletes or compromise the integrity of our sport are not acceptable and as a company we must take measures to demonstrate that they will not be tolerated,” Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen said about Baffert’s pattern of medication violations.
But like everything else in racing, nothing is uniform and the Churchill Downs ban did not extend outside of the boundaries of its properties. Baffert ran Medina Spirit back in the Preakness Stakes on May 15, and he was welcome to return to his home base in Southern California and race at Santa Anita and Del Mar as if nothing had happened.
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Baffert’s attorneys won the first round in a court battle against the New York Racing Association, reinstating his right to race at NYRA tracks at least until he is given a hearing. That comes in less than two weeks. A hearing officer will listen to the testimony, weigh the evidence and make a decision on the matter. But that, too, will only affect Baffert’s right to race in New York.
NYRA’s statement of charges against Baffert cites three additional positive drug tests the trainer accumulated over a 365-day period: lidocaine positives for Charlatan in a division of the Arkansas Derby and Gamine (yes, her again) in an Oaklawn Park allowance race, both on May 2, 2020; and a dextrorphan positive in Merneith after a second-place finish in an allowance race at Del Mar July 25, 2020.
Of course, Baffert had excuses for those three failed drug tests. Gamine and Charlatan tested positive, the trainer said, because his assistant trainer was wearing a pain patch on his lower back that contained lidocaine and it must have somehow contaminated the horses. Merneith tested positive, he said, because a groom who had been taking cough syrup urinated in the filly’s stall.
Members of the Arkansas Racing Commission bought the pain patch pitch, overruling a stewards ruling to disqualify both Charlatan and Gamine from their Oaklawn victories. And the CHRB stewards put on their kid gloves before fining him $2,500 for Merneith’s failed drug test.
After four failed drug tests in just over four months, Baffert pledged to “get better,” and said he was hiring Dr. Michael Hore of the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Kentucky to “add an additional layer of protection to ensure the well-being of horses in my care and rule compliance. … I am increasing the training and awareness of all my employees when it comes to proper protocols. … I am personally increasing my oversight and commitment to running a tight ship and being careful that protective measures are in place.
“I want to raise the bar and set the standard for equine safety and rule compliance going forward,” Baffert said.
That was last Nov. 4, Breeders’ Cup week at Keeneland.
It all sounded fine, except Hore was never hired to monitor the Baffert operation. And apparently, neither his vet, his staff or Baffert himself read the Otomax packaging or label to see that one of the ointment’s three ingredients was betamethasone.
Last week, Churchill Downs dropped another hammer on Baffert, saying that horses in the care of a trainer suspended by Churchill Downs (meaning Baffert) could not earn official qualifying points on the Road to the 2022 Kentucky Derby. That move is designed to put pressure on owners who currently have their horses with Baffert to move them to another trainer before the points races begin in earnest.
The fact that Baffert is ineligible to run horses in the 2022 or 2023 Kentucky Oaks or Derby does not seem to have phased some of his owners, including SF Bloodstock and Starlight Racing, which spent nearly $3 million on five yearlings before the first two sessions of the Keeneland September Yearling Sale had ended, reportedly with the intention of sending them to Baffert to train.
One group that has not been heard from is the Breeders’ Cup, whose two-day world championships take place this year at Del Mar on Nov. 5-6. As of now, Baffert will be eligible to race, and it seems unlikely that will change, given the fact that his five failed drug tests do not constitute a violation of the Breeders’ Cup Convicted Trainers Rule. That rule disqualifies a trainer from participating if he or she has been sanctioned in the previous 12 months for a Class 1 violation carrying Category A or B penalties or a Class 2 violation carrying a Category A penalty. Those classifications (with Class 1 considered the most serious) are determined by the Association of Racing Commissioners International. None of Baffert’s violations are Class 1 or Class 2, including the pending case involving Medina Spirit.
The Breeders’ Cup board presumably could opt to take action against Baffert by further refining the Convicted Trainers Rule. The board consists of 13 men and one woman – all but two of whom have a direct or indirect financial relationship with the trainer, starting with chairman Fred W. Hertrich III, who has had ownership interests in several Baffert runners, including the disqualified and then reinstated Arkansas Derby winner Charlatan. Eleven others either own horses in Baffert’s stable or stand stallions that he once trained and several hope to catch his eye with their yearlings sold at public auction.
As fiduciaries working on behalf of the breeders and owners who help fund the program through foal, racehorse and stallion nominations and entry fees, the board must do what is right for the Breeders’ Cup and the brand it has developed over the last 37 years as a championship event that attracts the best Thoroughbreds in the world. They have the same responsibility to protect that brand as the officials at publicly traded Churchill Downs Inc. who decided enough is enough.
That’s my view from the eighth pole.
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