Friday, October 1, 2021

Bob Baffert's Last Stand

I was mad at Baffert after Medina Spirit tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, though a bit flummoxed by his suspension, because his horses are the stars at all the big races (and Baffert's of course the focus of everyone's attention). 

Now I don't know. Perhaps he's pushing the envelope. It looks that way. He's had an unusually high number of substance violations and he's had 17 horses die since 2000, which is apparently above the norm and thus suspicious.

I'm not the biggest racing fan, and a total initiate when it comes to the in-and-outs of horse racing. 

But you be the judge. 

At the Los Angeles Times, "The last stand of Bob Baffert, horse racing’s most successful and embattled trainer":

In his claustrophobic and cluttered office at Santa Anita Barn 5, Bob Baffert, the hall of fame trainer, was pushing papers and moving stacks, hunting for a faded photo of his 17-year-old self aboard a long-forgotten quarter horse from a small racing circuit in Arizona.

He won his first race on that 1970 afternoon — but not as a trainer.

“See, I bet you didn’t know I was a jockey?” Baffert said. “You wouldn’t know it now.”

No, you wouldn’t.

Baffert parlayed a hobby as a 5-foot-9 jockey into a job as a quarter-horse conditioner into a career as a thoroughbred trainer before jumping onto the highest pedestal of horse racing and becoming the most recognizable name in the sport. Two Triple Crown winners and a signature shock of white hair will do that for a man.

Now 68, Baffert is seeing his livelihood and reputation under attack after a series of medication infractions have made him an outcast to some in the industry and a pariah to many more outside of it. He’s the person few in the business want to talk about, but everyone wants to hear about.

“It’s truly painful when you know what the truth is,” Baffert told The Times earlier this week in his first interview on the subject since May. “There have been so many false narratives that have come up and the hearing process isn’t even done yet. The consolation is knowing the truth will come out as the process plays out.

He paused, then added: “I’ve learned who my friends are.”

Bob Baffert wakes up most every day with one thing in mind, winning another Kentucky Derby. He’s won seven, more than anyone else in the 147-year history of the race. But that number may drop to six if the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission disqualifies this year’s winner, Medina Spirit, for a medication violation, the trainer’s fifth since May 2020.

All of the drugs were legal, just not in the amounts found on race day. None of them are considered performance-enhancing in the traditional sense, such as amphetamines or speedballs. Some would argue, though, that if it makes a horse less uncomfortable, it improves their performance.

The first two infractions occurred in May 2020, when the horses Charlatan and Gamine tested positive in Arkansas for lidocaine, a numbing agent. At first it was believed the substance came from a pain-relief patch that Baffert’s longtime assistant Jimmy Barnes was wearing because of back pain. It was later discovered that horses from separate barns had also tested positive. Racing officials ruled that the positive test was a result of contamination and the wins of Charlatan and Gamine were restored. Baffert was fined $10,000.

In July 2020, Merneith tested positive for dextromethorphan, a drug commonly used in cough medicine. Baffert said the horse ingested hay after a groom, who was taking cough medicine, had urinated in the horse’s stall. The trainer was fined $2,500.

Last October Gamine was disqualified from third to last in the Kentucky Oaks after betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory, was discovered in the horse’s system. According to protocols, the medication is supposed to have a 14-day withdrawal period. Baffert said the horse was off the drug for 18 days before the race. He was fined $1,500.

All of the explanations for the positive drug tests are plausible, but collectively they raise questions. Many in the racing world wondered how many times can the dog eat your homework?

“My heart tells me one thing, but my head tells me something else,” said veteran racing journalist Ron Flatter, the managing editor of the website Horse Racing Nation.

Baffert, a La CaƱada Flintridge resident who is currently training his horses at Santa Anita, has not officially been charged with anything related to Medina Spirit. The horse is scheduled to run Saturday in the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita. After Baffert was notified a week following this year’s Kentucky Derby that the colt’s blood and urine sample contained 21 picograms, a trillionth of a gram, of betamethasone, he held a hastily called news conference outside his barn at Churchill Downs saying he had no idea how it could have gotten into the horse’s system.

Another day passed before it was discovered the colt was administered a topical ointment for a rash that contained betamethasone. It was then that Baffert, one of the most accessible trainers in horse racing, stopped talking until this week. Even then, he would not talk about the specifics of the cases against him.

Despite the cautious approach of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which five months later still has not acted on the drug positive, or disqualified, Medina Spirit, Churchill Downs suspended the trainer for two years. It subsequently said any horses running for a suspended trainer (Baffert) would not be eligible for Kentucky Derby or Oaks qualifying points.

The New York Racing Assn. followed up and ruled Baffert would not be allowed to run in New York. Baffert went to federal court and had the suspension overturned, but NYRA has called a scheduling conference on the trainer for Oct. 11.

And the Breeders’ Cup, which will be held Nov. 5-6 at Del Mar, has indicated it will soon make a decision on Baffert’s eligibility to run in those championship races. Several members of the Breeders’ Cup board have used Baffert as their trainer.

Baffert says he plans to seek legal recourse wherever necessary. His primary attorney is Craig Robertson, who represents him in all regulatory matters, but he has recused himself from any action against Churchill Downs because his law firm does business with the company, creating a conflict of interest. Clark Brewster, a nationally known trial attorney who represented adult film actress Stormy Daniels in her defamation suit against President Trump, will be Baffert’s attorney in any litigation against Churchill Downs.

The longest his suspension from Kentucky would be is 30 days, which would be honored by all racing jurisdictions. But it’s a lot more difficult when going against a private company, such as Churchill Downs, which can invoke its own penalties...

It's all pretty fascinating.

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