So Long As Horse Racing Preserves Its Fiefdoms, Bob Baffert’s Not Going Anywhere

Tainted trainer keeps avoiding significant penalties, even with horses kept out of the Belmont Stakes
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Imagine, if you will, that the National Basketball Association’s uber-agitator, Memphis Grizzlies guard Grayson Allen, steps on LeBron James’ foot during the Laker star’s three-point follow-through.

James escapes uninjured, but he’s upset enough at Allen’s maneuver — considered to be unsportsmanlike at best — that he coldcocks the Ted Cruz doppelganger.

Such a violent act of retribution brings secret joy to many but draws a one-game suspension for James, who is among the league’s biggest road draws. Next on the Lakers’ schedule is a trip to Houston, where the Rockets’ owner, Tilman Fertitta, announces that he will allow James to face the home team, in defiance of the NBA’s wishes. Hence, James plays amid a cloud of controversy.

This sort of scenario would never truly play out in the NBA, a professional sports league with a central governing body and clear protocols that are applied equally to every athlete and team. But the hypothetical James-Allen fracas is basketball’s version of what actually happened in horse racing with the Bob Baffert-Medina Spirit fiasco, one which could only occur in a decentralized sport rife with state-by-state — and even track-by-track — fiefdoms that apply and enforce whatever rules they please, often inequitably.

Another victim of cancel culture? Hmmm

Let’s review the facts of the Baffert situation: After one of the Hall-of-Fame trainer’s horses, Medina Spirit, won the Kentucky Derby, Baffert announced that it had tested positive for illicit levels of betamethasone, a medication commonly used to treat joint inflammation. Baffert’s infraction was serious enough for Churchill Downs to ban his horses from racing there until a split sample could verify the initial test. Furthermore, the track confirmed that if the positive test was confirmed, Medina Spirit would be stripped of its Derby title.

Baffert took it upon himself to reveal Medina Spirit’s positive test six days before the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, was to be run at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course. Making the media rounds in his hallmark tinted sunglasses, Baffert criticized Churchill Downs for overreacting, raising the specter of a backstretch conspiracy and how he’d become a victim of “cancel culture.” 

“There’s problems in racing,” he declared, “but it’s not Bob Baffert.”

After all that, Baffert sheepishly claimed that Medina Spirit had been treated for dermatitis with an ointment that he’d only just learned contained betamethasone. Finally, the truth! (Or, likelier, not.)

Meanwhile, Baffert’s attorney, Craig Robertson, threatened to seek a temporary restraining order to allow Medina Spirit to run in the Preakness in the event that either the Maryland Racing Commission or Pimlico’s owner, 1/ST, sought to bar the horse from competing in the wake of the Derby revelation.

As Matt Hegarty wrote in The Daily Racing Form, “The timing of the positive and Baffert’s announcement of the initial test before a split-sample confirmation put Pimlico in a difficult position. If the track decided to allow the horse to run, then it would be forced to deal with the fallout of the failed test and the perception of a tainted performance during the running of a nationally broadcast race. If the track barred the horse, it would have to confront the legal implications of intervening in a case prior to its connections being granted the barest due-process considerations.”

But Bloodhorse columnist (and DRF alum) Jay Hovdey saw things differently. “Denying Medina Spirit’s entry would have been a win-win for Pimlico,” he wrote. “Even though the colt’s people were ready to seek a temporary restraining order (TRO) to run, a racing company intent on preserving the integrity of its marquee event could stand by its decision and let its legal representation make the case for exclusion. If the TRO had been pursued and granted, at least the racetrack would have tried, and credit due. If the TRO had been denied, and Medina Spirit sat this one out, the middle jewel of the 2021 Triple Crown would have transpired reasonably free of suspicion.”

Preakness result was a relief

As it turned out, 1/ST permitted Medina Spirit to run in the Preakness on May 15. After the horse crossed the finish line a disappointing third, the industry exhaled, relieved that the Baffert carnival would not carry into the June 5 Belmont Stakes and produce a potentially tainted Triple Crown. On May 17, the New York Racing Association ensured that Baffert will not race any horses in the Belmont by barring his horses from Belmont Park and Saratoga indefinitely.

But horse racing is a long way from outrunning this crisis, which is just the latest involving a man who is by far the sport’s biggest personality. (Can you remember the last horseman to get sent up on Saturday Night Live?)

Let’s start with the fact that three of the last four Kentucky Derbies have been marred in controversy significant enough to call the sport’s credibility into question. In 2018, the Derby was won by a Baffert-trained horse named Justify, which would go on to win the Triple Crown. However, it wasn’t until 2019 that The New York Times revealed that Justify failed a drug test after winning the Santa Anita Derby — a result that should have rendered it ineligible for the Kentucky Derby. This inaction came because the California Horse Racing Board decided to drop the case behind closed doors rather than file a public complaint in a timely manner, which it typically does.

And in 2019, Maximum Security crossed the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby, only to be disqualified for jostling with several horses on Churchill’s far turn. Maximum Security would bounce back to win several Grade 1 stakes races and an Eclipse Award as the sport’s top 3-year-old male before its trainer, Jason Servis, was indicted on federal doping charges in March of 2020. The day after Servis’ indictment, Maximum Security’s owners, Gary and Mary West, transferred the horse to Baffert’s stable . If the Wests wanted to show that they were committed to clean racing, they sure found an odd way to express it.

Another Baffert trainee, Authentic, won the 2020 Derby. The horse did not test positive for a banned substance and the victory stood. Nevertheless, a gray cloud hung over the result. Hence, Baffert, who’s chalked up scores of drug-related infractions during the course of his long career, issued a statement two months after the race wherein he pledged to “do everything possible to ensure I receive no further medication complaints,” adding that he’d be retaining the services of Dr. Michael Hore of the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute “to add an extra layer of protection to ensure the well-being of horses in my care and rule compliance.”

But the hiring of Hore (‘tis a shame his name isn’t Horse) never happened. Instead, around the time he was girding for a legal tussle over Medina Spirit’s Preakness prospects, attorney Robertson let slip that Hore’s hiring “did not materialize as expected due to COVID.”

Lawsuit filed on behalf of losing bettors

Baffert’s failure to make good on his promise to hire Hore shows up in a federal class-action lawsuit filed on May 13. It accuses Baffert and Medina Spirit’s owner, Zedan Racing Stables, of racketeering and other misdeeds related to their triumph at Churchill on the first Saturday in May. As a longtime turf writer who briefly worked for a class-action law firm, I can tell you that primary plaintiff Michael Beychok and his lead attorney, William Federman, don’t trade in frivolities.

The way horse racing’s pari-mutuel wagering system works, even if the split sample upholds Medina Spirit’s positive test and it is stripped of its Derby title, individuals who placed bets on Mandaloun — the horse that would be elevated to first in such a scenario — would not recoup any winnings, or even their original losses. Long story short, once a race is ruled official, that’s that from a betting standpoint, even if subsequent evidence results in a winner being disqualified at a later date.

Beychok and his co-plaintiffs, each of whom bet on Mandaloun to win at odds of 26/1, think this system is faulty, and they want the defendants to compensate them and anyone who can prove that they would have won were it not for Baffert’s actions.

In a pre-Preakness column for NOLA.com, Beychok, a championship handicapper and horse-aftercare advocate who runs a political consultancy in Baton Rouge, alluded to his lawsuit in writing, “Seven months ago, Baffert ran a horse in the Kentucky Oaks that tested positive for drugs not allowed on race day. A year ago, Baffert ran two horses in Arkansas, one of which won the Arkansas Derby. Both horses tested positive for race day drug overages. In between the Arkansas doping episode and the Oaks, Baffert was caught again in California for yet another drug violation. That’s five positive drug cases in one year in three states. Does anyone need a crack CSI detective to notice a pattern?”

Excuses for test results raise many eyebrows

Horatio Caine’s presence would also not be required to recognize that Baffert has a pattern of coming up with some, shall we say, unlikely explanations for why some of his horses have failed drug tests. As Beychok’s lawsuit states, in addition to cancel culture and the ointment about-face, Baffert has blamed infractions on the presence of poppyseed bagels and Jimson Weed in his barn; a pain-relief patch worn by an employee who must have transferred lidocaine to a horse when the employee applied tongue ties to the animal; and a groom taking cough syrup before urinating on some hay that one of his horses ate before testing positive for a banned substance.

One of these claims being true would itself be implausible. But all of them? Impossible.

In his NOLA.com column, Beychok added, “When players in other major sports fail drug tests, the penalties are swift and severe. In horse racing, the opposite is true. State regulators have fined Baffert a grand total of a few thousand dollars.”

But there is at least a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Late last year, Congress passed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA), which will establish federal rules and penalties — to take effect in July of 2022 — to be enforced by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. While the likes of Baffert have expressed their support for this measure, the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) has filed a federal lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.

If HISA survives the HBPA’s legal challenge, it will mark a step in the right direction for a sport with a tarnished reputation. But a federal standard for drug testing is not the same as having a national governing body along the lines of the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB. Until horse racing’s various fiefdoms come together in an attempt to form a more noble kingdom, there will always be tracks willing to take Baffert’s action.   

Baffert’s right about one thing: The problem with racing is not Bob Baffert. The problem with racing is that hucksters like him are allowed to race in the first place.

Photo from Shutterstock

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