Time is running out on Bob Baffert’s chances to get in the 2022 Kentucky Derby.
The Hall of Fame racing trainer had his 2021 win stripped after stewards with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) disqualified Medina Spirit. The horse had excessive amounts of betamethasone in his system at the time of last year’s race. In addition to taking the late Medina Spirit down as the winner last month, the stewards also handed Baffert a 90-day suspension for repeated drug violations.
Baffert and his attorneys are currently trying to get a stay on that suspension as he appeals the stewards’ ruling. That’s one of two legal fights Baffert’s waging. He also wants to block Churchill Downs Inc.’s two-year ban against him from racing horses at its tracks, and from earning any points for Derby prep races.
On Tuesday, lawyers for Churchill Downs Inc. told a federal judge the Louisville-based company would respond to Baffert’s motion for an injunction next week. They also indicated that the earliest they and company officials would be available for a hearing on an injunction would be April 13, just three days before the final prep race and 24 days from the Derby itself.
That filing came a day after a Kentucky judge declined Baffert’s request for a stay on the suspension. However, Franklin Circuit Court Thomas Wingate did keep the suspension from taking effect until April 4, a move allowing Baffert’s legal team to seek a stay from the state Court of Appeals.
Baffert: ‘My Confidence is Being Tested’
One of the primary focal points for Baffert and his legal team is that the betamethasone was not injected in Medina Spirit, but rather applied as a topical ointment to treat a skin rash. Betamethasone is an anti-inflammatory medication. KHRC drug policies say it cannot be injected less than 14 days before a race, and the allowable limit in a horse’s system is 10 picograms per milliliter of blood.
Racing officials have said they see no difference between the betamethasone used in ointments and the betamethasone that’s injected.
The tests on Medina Spirit came back showing slightly more than twice the legal limit in his system at the time he finished first in the Kentucky Derby. At the time, it gave Baffert a record seventh win in the prestigious race.
On Monday, Baffert, through his attorney Clark Brewster, issued a statement to Casino.org saying he was “shocked” at Wingate’s ruling.
There is no real dispute that the Medina Spirit positive came from the use of an ointment on his skin,” Baffert said. “No trainer has ever been fined or suspended for use of a topical salve, according to the KHRC. No trainer has been denied a stay of the stewards ruling pending a good faith appeal and basic due process. I want to trust in the system but my confidence is being tested.”
If the 90-day suspension were to start on April 4, it would prevent Baffert from entering in any of the Triple Crown races. After the May 7 Derby, the Preakness Stakes is set for May 21, and the Belmont Stakes will take place on June 11.
Besides Churchill Downs implementing its own ban, the New York Racing Association, which operates Belmont Park, is also considering its own action against Baffert. Its initial suspension last year was struck down by a federal judge, who ruled that the NYRA failed to give the trainer due process. NYRA officials held a hearing in January on the matter.
Major Kentucky Derby Preps Start This Weekend
As part of the suspension it placed on Baffert last year after Medina Spirit’s drug test, Churchill Downs banned Baffert from all of its tracks across the country. It also would not allow any of his horses to earn points in Kentucky Derby qualifiers held at other tracks.
If Baffert pulls a legal version of a daily double – getting a stay in Kentucky and an injunction in federal court – he could have several horses make the field. If you were to count the points they’ve been denied, four Baffert horses would rank currently in the top 20.
Corniche, who won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last year, would have 30 points. That would put him in the top 10. However, he has yet to race this year as a 3-year-old.
Two other horses, Newgrange and Doppelganger, would have 20 points each, but the colt that might be Baffert’s best chance is Messier, who would have 14.
The Kentucky Derby prep race schedule kicks into high gear starting this weekend with the UAE Derby and the Louisiana Derby. Both races will award 100 qualifying points to the winner, 40 to the runner-up, and 20 and 10 to the third- and fourth-place finishers, respectively.
Baffert cannot enter any horses in the Louisiana Derby since it is at Churchill-owned Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans. However, he does have another horse, Pinehurst, a winner in three of five starts, entered in the UAE.
Other 100-point races that could attract Baffert horses are Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 2, and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park on April 9.
Racing Scandals Erode Bettor Confidence
The Baffert lawsuits come as racing around the world deals with doping scandals worldwide.
Earlier this week, police in France, Italy, and Spain arrested nearly two dozen horsemen as part of an investigation into banned products. Suspects may face charges of drug trafficking and fraud, The Sun reported. In Louisiana, four-quarter horse trainers received suspensions after their horses tested positive for Zilpaterol, which racing website Paulick Report described as a drug used commonly in cattle to build their body fat and muscle before going to slaughter.
Ray Paulick, the publisher of the Paulick Report and a longtime racing industry writer, lamented on Twitter late Tuesday night about the state of the sport. It included a screenshot of a message he received from an unnamed “long time player” who questioned how many times he lost a race – and won a race – because of drugs.
“Confidence in the game may be at an all-time low,” Paulick tweeted.
Some say having Baffert sit out would help with that. PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo called for Baffert to consider a permanent retirement from the sport if he winds up serving the suspension.
Animal Wellness Action Executive Director Marty Irby said in a statement after Wingate’s ruling that Baffert has avoided consequential penalties for past transgressions.
“The Run for the Roses will be paved with more credibility than we’ve seen in many years if Baffert and his horses are not present,” Irby said. “…Unlike the Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrongs of the world, horses have no voice or choice in what substances or drugs are impacting their performance or welfare.”