Never short on improbable alibis or conspiracy theories, Bob Baffert would have us believe the New York Racing Association is trying to suspend him because of the personal vendettas and competitive interests of members of its board.
Inconsistent and sometimes sloppy in its disciplinary procedures, NYRA claims its second attempt to suspend Baffert was prompted by the “incalculable” damage caused when the Hall of Fame trainer “took a wrecking ball” to racing’s integrity.
Opening statements in Baffert’s hearing before retired New York Supreme Court justice O. Peter Sherwood on Monday were sometimes hyperbolic and sometimes just hot air.
NYRA attorney Henry Greenberg said Baffert was responsible for a “Triple Crown” of destruction, tainting the Grade I Kentucky Oaks, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby during a 14-month span in which his horses tested positive six times.
Craig Robertson, representing Baffert, described NYRA’s rhetoric as “feigned outrage,” pointing out its failure to suspend other horsemen with similar or worse records, its inherent conflicts of interest and alleged ulterior motives, and said, “The unfairness, the bias, the vindictiveness of NYRA has no bounds.”
Nearly nine months since Medina Spirit’s Kentucky Derby victory was imperiled by a betamethasone positive, and seven weeks since the 3-year-old colt dropped dead at Santa Anita, thoroughbred racing’s most prominent personality remains at odds with two of the most powerful entities in the sport.
Baffert has threatened to sue Churchill Downs Inc. over a two-year suspension imposed in June, and unsuccessfully sought to block Monday’s NYRA hearing and to persuade Sherwood to recuse himself from a case that could determine whether he will be allowed to enter horses in the 2022 Belmont Stakes, the last leg of the Triple Crown.
Though Churchill Downs spokesman Darren Rogers said early nominations for all three Triple Crown races would be accepted until Jan. 29, including Baffert’s horses, those horses are currently ineligible to accumulate qualifying points or to compete in Derby 148. With prep race point values due to rise beginning with the Feb. 19 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds, Baffert’s clients may soon be forced to decide whether to sue, to change stables or to sit out the most prestigious race in their sport.
None of these scenarios figure to cast a favorable light on a sport that has been in decline for decades, with dwindling foal crops, shrinking fields, track closures and the welfare of its horses facing sharper scrutiny.
Yet while none of Baffert’s drug violations occurred in New York state, Greenberg argued that the integrity issues arising from Baffert’s recurring violations made it incumbent on NYRA and others to take action.
“What happens if those institutions do not give their best effort to do everything in their power to protect the safety of the animals, in this case horses?” he said. “What happens is what happened to greyhound racing, which you no longer see. It’s what happened to the circus, where there were lion-tamers. They don’t exist anymore.”
Robertson stressed that Baffert’s positive tests were not “doping” per se, but merely overages of therapeutic medications that are permissible except on race days. He continues to claim Kentucky Horse Racing Commission rules regulate only the injectable betamethasone and not the ointment Baffert says was used to treat Medina Spirit’s skin. Kentucky statutes, however, make no such distinction, defining a drug positive as the presence of a prohibited substance in a horse’s system.
NYRA’s blunder was in failing to afford Baffert due process in its initial attempt to suspend him, and its case could be compromised by examples of other trainers who have avoided suspension despite rap sheets that were comparable or longer.
“Why are we here?” Robertson asked. “The short answer is we shouldn’t be here. The long answer is the only reason we are here is that there are a handful of NYRA board members that can answer that question. They have some personal vendetta against Mr. Baffert. Do they not like him? Or perhaps since they own horses that race in New York, they are tired of Mr. Baffert coming to New York and beating them in New York races and they want to eliminate a competitor.”
Robertson’s allegation of a vendetta was provocative but unsubstantiated, much like the “cancel culture” claims Baffert lodged before he was forced to backtrack on Medina Spirit’s betamethasone positive.
“Does he accept responsibility for his actions?” Greenberg said. “No. Instead, he trashes everyone he can think of. He trashes regulators, he trashes the media, he attacks everyone and everything, and he says he has no idea how this could happen.”
Meanwhile, the case continues, and the 2021 Kentucky Derby remains unresolved.
Tim Sullivan: 502-582-4650, firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @TimSullivan714
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Bob Baffert's NYRA disciplinary hearing opens with hyperbole, hot air