Bob Baffert has done his time, but he has not done his penance.
The Hall of Fame trainer has served the two-year suspension initially imposed by Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI), without any new drug violations that could have complicated his comeback. What he has not done is accept and apologize for the violation that resulted in Medina Spirit’s disqualification from the 2021 Kentucky Derby or beg for mercy from CDI CEO Bill Carstanjen.
In extending Baffert’s suspension through 2024 on Monday, Churchill appeared to be piling on without sufficient provocation, presumably as payback for expensive litigation and inadequate contrition, possibly as proof of the company’s vigilance after a spate of equine fatalities prompted Churchill’s spring meet being moved to Ellis Park.
Yet barely two weeks after Churchill issued a warning-shot statement on May 25, reiterating its right to prolong Baffert’s ban, Fox aired an interview in which thoroughbred racing’s preeminent personality insisted, again, he had done nothing worth getting the Derby winner DQ’d.
When Churchill refers to Baffert’s “false narrative,” this would seem to be the crux of its complaint.
“I probably wouldn’t have done anything different because everything we were doing was legal,” Baffert told Fox’s Tom Rinaldi. “We didn’t break any rules cause the rule was a 14-day corticosteroid injection (withdrawal period) and he wasn’t injected.”
As I read the rules, this is not what they say.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission defines a “positive finding” as a commission laboratory determining a restricted or prohibited drug, medication or substance was present in a sample, and it makes no distinction or allowances about the source.
Nonetheless, Baffert’s attorneys argue KHRC rules distinguish between injections and topical applications and that the betamethasone contained in the ointment Otomax should have been allowed. They cite a passage that allows for certain topical applications to be administered up to the scheduled paddock time of a race in which a horse is to compete, though that same passage limits those allowable applications to those that “do not contain steroids, anesthetics, or any other prohibited substances.”
The KHRC has designated betamethasone to be a Class C drug, prohibited on race day. Since commission regulations call for a mandatory disqualification and loss of purse if any verifiable amount of betamethasone is found in post-race testing and confirmed by a split sample, Baffert’s case would seem to suffer from a flimsy foundation.
Though Baffert’s lawyers yet to find a court or a regulatory body willing to buy what they’ve been selling, their strategy remains unchanged. In response to Churchill extending his suspension Monday, a statement from Baffert was posted on social media that said, “I have been advised by my attorneys that the use of Otomax is permitted under the rules, and this issue is presently being adjudicated by the Racing Commission in a case presently before them. In no way does this involve a ‘disregard for the rules.’ ”
At a minimum, though, it involves a disregard for the odds. While Baffert attorney Clark Brewster insists, “we will prevail when the facts and rules are presented to detached, neutral decision-makers,” his presentations to date have proved unpersuasive.
“Baffert is the only trainer whose horses have tested positive in back-to-back marquee races on CDI tracks,” Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings wrote in denying a preliminary injunction that would have allowed Baffert to enter the 2023 Derby. “Failing to punish trainers whose horses test positive in marquee races could harm CDI’s reputation and the integrity of their races.”
If Churchill Downs’ discipline turned draconian in extending Baffert’s ban (and in its knee-jerk suspension of Saffie Joseph Jr.), the company can be counted on to protect the brand at the heart of its business.
To test positive in the Kentucky Derby is to feel the full weight of Churchill’s legal, financial and punitive resources. As one former KHRC member observed, “Churchill doesn’t back down. It doubles down.”
“I knew my life was going to be turned upside-down,” Baffert told Tom Rinaldi.
What he didn’t know then, and has yet to learn, was how to turn it rightside-up.