Bob Baffert got a victory in the courtroom Wednesday when a federal judge blocked a suspension against him handed down by the New York Racing Association (NYRA). Baffert is best known as the legendary thoroughbred racehorse trainer whose reputation is in tatters after his Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit failed a drug test.
Trainer Bob Baffert, shown here at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., won an injunction in federal court Wednesday that allows him to race horses at New York tracks. The New York Racing Association suspended Baffert indefinitely two months ago in the wake of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, a colt he trains, failing a drug test after that race. (Image: NBC News)
In a 28-page decision, US District Judge Carol Bagley Amon said Baffert was denied due process by the private nonprofit organization that runs horse racing operations at Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park, and Saratoga Race Course. The tracks themselves are state-owned.
The association suspended Baffert indefinitely on May 17, two days after Medina Spirit lost in the Preakness Stakes. That decision kept Baffert from entering the colt in the Belmont Stakes, the final leg in racing’s Triple Crown, and it also kept him from entering any other horse in a race at NYRA’s tracks.
At that time, NYRA President and CEO Dave O’Rourke said the organization acted to “protect the integrity of the sport for our fans, the betting public,” and other horsemen. Churchill Downs had already suspended Baffert from racing at the Kentucky track after the initial drug test failed.
NYRA not only cited the failed Derby test, but rulings by state boards in Arkansas, California, and Kentucky that found Baffert guilty of breaking drug rules. In Kentucky, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) found Baffert violated drug rules with other horses he raced.
Judge: Baffert’s Interests “Weightier” Than NYRA’s
However, Amon said that NYRA did not cite any New York law in suspending Baffert, nor did NYRA inform Baffert of its action or hold a hearing prior to acting. In addition, while Medina Spirit did fail a drug test in the Kentucky Derby, the judge noted that the colt passed pre-race tests Maryland officials required to run in the Preakness.
I accordingly conclude that, although NYRA invokes important interests here, those interests do not outweigh Baffert’s weightier interest in being able to practice his chosen profession, especially given the risk of erroneous deprivation and the likelihood that additional procedures would have been valuable,” the judge stated in her decision.
The injunction means Baffert will be able to run horses during the meet at Saratoga, which starts Thursday.
While the upstate New York track does not host a Triple Crown race, it’s considered one of the country’s top summer meets and runs several graded stakes races. Some of those races are age-specific, meaning certain horses that Baffert trains would have missed out on the chance to run for lucrative purses.
Baffert argued that some owners have already removed horses from his care and sent them to trainers able to compete in New York.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Baffert attorney Craig Robertson said Amon’s decision to issue an injunction shows “There was an improper rush to judgment” against his client.
Still, he added that Baffert has had a “good relationship” with NYRA, and hopes that can be rekindled for the good of the sport.
O’Rourke said in a statement after the injunction was issued that the judge did uphold the authority’s rights to ban horsemen who do not act in the best interest of the sport. He also noted that the court denied Baffert’s argument that NYRA had no standing to act.
“NYRA is reviewing the court’s decision today to determine our legal options and next steps,” O’Rourke said. “What is clear, however, is that Mr. Baffert’s actions and behavior can either elevate or damage the sport. We expect Mr. Baffert to exert appropriate controls over his operation.”
Kentucky Derby Status Still Up in the Air
Wednesday’s ruling means nothing regarding Medina Spirit’s status as the Kentucky Derby winner. That will be decided by the KHRC, which has not announced a schedule for when that might occur.
If the commission rules to disqualify Medina Spirit, it would mark the second time in the race’s history that the winner was disqualified because of a failed drug test.
Baffert, through his attorney, did confirm last month that the split sample test result confirmed the initial test failure. After that was announced, Churchill Downs announced Baffert’s suspension would run through 2023.
The drug tests found an excessive amount of betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory steroid, in Medina Spirit’s system. A week after the Derby win, when Baffert first revealed the failed drug test, Baffert told reporters in a press conference outside his barn at Churchill Downs that the horse had never been treated with the drug.
Days later, he revealed that Medina Spirit was treated with a topical ointment that contained the drug, and that could have caused the failed test. Baffert said the ointment was used upon a veterinarian’s recommendation to treat a skin rash found after Medina Spirit ran in the April 3 Santa Anita Derby.
Baffert also faces lawsuits from Kentucky Derby bettors who claim they were cheated out of winnings because Medina Spirit did not run clean.