Injunction Improbable For Horse Trainer Bob Baffert As He Continues Plead In Louisville U.S. District Court

Feb 4, 2023 at 10:47 am
Bob Baffert with attorney Clark Brewster after leaving a Louisville courtroom where Baffert is seeking an injunction. (Baffert - left)
Bob Baffert with attorney Clark Brewster after leaving a Louisville courtroom where Baffert is seeking an injunction. (Baffert - left) Photo by Tim Sullivan

Bob Lewis’ tombstone was introduced into evidence on Friday. It described the California horseman as a “loving husband, adoring father and winner of the 123rd and 125th Kentucky Derby.”

The idea was to demonstrate how much Louisville’s annual cavalry charge means within thoroughbred racing and to show how much Bob Baffert might be missing if his Churchill Downs’ suspension is not lifted this spring.

U.S. District Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings heard more than seven hours of argument, testimony and digressions she deemed “far afield” over two days before adjourning to deliberate whether to grant Baffert’s request for a temporary injunction that would enable him to enter Derby 149 on May 6.

 At issue is whether Churchill has the authority to suspend Baffert, whether such a decision requires specific steps, whether those steps were followed and whether the company that stages America’s most prestigious horse race qualifies as a “state actor” and is therefore obliged to provide due process.

At stake is Baffert’s fluid place in history, many millions of dollars invested by his clients, the image of Churchill’s signature brand and the many ripples that will result however Jennings rules. 

Saturday, in a Santa Anita prep race named for Lewis, all four entries were Baffert trainees. Newgate beat Hard to Figure by a neck, followed by Worcester and Arabian Lion. Barring an injunction, though, none of the four will be credited with any Road to the Derby qualifying points from the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Barring an injunction, Baffert's best Derby prospects must be transferred to other trainers by Feb. 28 or become ineligible to run for the roses.

An injunction, it appears, is at least improbable and possibly as long a shot as was 80-1 Rich Strike in winning the Derby in Baffert’s absence last year.

Before Churchill Downs granted Baffert stall space prior to the 2021 Derby, the Hall of Fame trainer signed a document acknowledging his use of the facilities was “subject to revocation, with or without cause and in the sole and exclusive discretion of Churchill. . .” Within hours of the May 9 press conference in which Baffert admitted his first-place finisher Medina Spirit had tested positive for betamethasone while claiming it must have been a mistake, Churchill imposed an indefinite suspension. Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen subsequently settled on a two-year ban after a split sample confirmed Medina Spirit’s initial positive test.

Clark Brewster, Baffert’s attorney, characterized the penalty as “as a matter of might instead of right,” and took pains to paint the decision as impulsive, ill-considered and inadequately investigated. 

“We learned everything they knew before they made their decision, and they knew nothing,” he said. “Hopefully now, after they’re reviewed the materials and the testimony, somewhere along the way somebody will have the integrity and honesty to do the right thing and get rid of this so-called suspension. It’s completely without a foundation. . .They just heard a press conference and lashed out.”

Nearly 21 months later, Churchill Downs has neither retreated nor shown any appetite for compromise. “Churchill doesn’t back down,” says a former KHRC board member, “it doubles down.”

Six attorneys lined Churchill’s bench throughout the hearing. Orin Snyder, who questioned Baffert on Friday, grilled him for more than an hour with the same “take no prisoners approach” he described after a withering interrogation of a Google executive during Apple’s 2013 antitrust trial.

Revisiting some of the denials Baffert was obliged to walk back, and playing an excerpt from a recorded phone call in which the trainer referred to Kentucky as a “cesspool,” Snyder pushed for a rationale Baffert was unable to provide.

“My state of mind was just off the charts,” Baffert said. “. . .My mind was going crazy. I knew my life was going to change because something wasn’t right.”  

Yet, rather than putting Baffert out of business, as the trainer hyperbolically predicted, Churchill’s suspension has revealed his resiliency and the loyalty of his clients. His horses earned nearly $10 million in domestic races last year, not counting their $17.5 million take from the world’s richest races, the Saudi Cup and the Dubai World Cup. 

Even now, with his Derby status in doubt, Baffert trains seven of the 10 3-year-olds with the best Beyer speed figures and seven of the Daily Racing Form’s top 20 Derby contenders, including Arabian Knight, the early 6-1 favorite. SF Racing, one of the trainer’s biggest clients, filed an affidavit claiming to have invested nearly $50 million in Baffert bloodstock since 2018.

Baffert is the only man living to have won racing’s Triple Crown, and having done so twice he retains a powerful gravitational pull with wealthy owners. What he has been unable to do is budge Churchill Downs and regain entry to the Kentucky Derby. 

That much is unlikely to change by the first Saturday in May. The brand big enough for Bob Lewis’ tombstone still looks like a dead end for the sport’s best trainer.