Time For Peace Between Bob Baffert And Churchill Downs

Tim Sullivan Says Enough Is Enough Of The Standoff Between Bob Baffert And Churchill Downs

Feb 9, 2024 at 2:05 pm
Horse Trainer Bob Baffert at 2010 Breeder's Cup
Horse Trainer Bob Baffert at 2010 Breeder's Cup photo by Just Chaos (CC)

Bob Baffert has done his time. And then some. He has finally capitulated to Churchill Downs, abandoning his ill-advised attempt to overturn Medina Spirit’s 2021 disqualification from the Kentucky Derby, and going so far as to grovel.

Not only did Baffert and owner Amr Zedan agree to dismiss their case “in its entirety, with prejudice,” they also thanked the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and Churchill “for listening and considering our point of view.” 

Barring new and incriminating information regarding racing’s preeminent trainer, isn’t it about time to make peace?

 As unconditional surrenders go, Baffert’s was about as graceful (albeit equally overdue) as was Robert E. Lee’s. Yet rather than reciprocate, as Ulysses S. Grant did at Appomattox, allowing Lee to keep his sword and providing rations for his emaciated army, Churchill responded to the proferred olive branch by issuing a statement affirming Baffert’s ban was still in place and that his horses would be ineligible for Derby 150 unless they were sent to other stables by Jan. 29.

Rather than pursue racing’s biggest prize by proxy, Baffert’s clients have elected to stick with their man and skip the 150th Derby, forsaking a shot at thoroughbred racing’s most coveted prize and effectively diminishing the quality of its field. With six Derby victories that have withstood drug testing, and a barn loaded with expensive three-year-olds, Baffert’s absence from another Run for the Roses will continue to overshadow the presence and prospects of any of his rivals.

This benefits neither the trainer nor the track. Much as animal welfare advocates might wish Baffert banned for life, he remains the face of a rapidly contracting sport and has consequently been held to a higher standard than numerous trainers with comparable medication issues. 

Records maintained by the Association of Racing Commissioners International show that three trainers who competed against Medina Spirit in the 2021 Derby – Steve Asmussen, John Sadler and Wesley Ward — had more career drug violation than did Baffert. None of them have been suspended by Churchill Downs. 

Fourteen Baffert horses were nominated for Derby 150. Were they eligible to accumulate qualifying points, three of them would have ranked among the Road to the Kentucky Derby top 10 as of Feb. 1: Muth, Wynstock and Wine Me Up.  Nysos, son of 2016 Derby winner Nyquist, is another Baffert 3-year-old whose record shows two victories in two starts by a total of 18 ¾ lengths.

In declining to transfer these colts to other trainers in time to meet Churchill’s deadline, Baffett’s owners have made a potentially costly vote of confidence in their trainer. There are no do-overs in the Derby. A horse is 3-years old on only one first Saturday in May. To pass up the opportunity to compete in America’s most renowned race is as bold a gesture as was Churchill CEO Bill Carstanjen’s suspension of the only man living to have won thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown twice.

Carstanjen extended Baffert’s original two-year suspension last summer, and has yet to provide any indication the ban will be lifted following the 2024 Derby. Citing Baffert’s “continued disregard for the rules and regulations that ensure horse and jockey safety,” and complaining of his “false narrative concerning the failed drug test of Medina Spirit,” Churchill’s stern public stance has not softened and has spent lavishly on lawyers to make its sanctions stick. 

Baffert’s lawyers, meanwhile, have done him no favors, clinging to an abstract argument that has failed to find a friendly judge or an accommodating administrative tribunal. Whether Medina Spirit was injected with betamethasone or absorbed the corticosteroid through an ointment, as the Baffert camp contends, is an irrelevant distinction under KHRC rules. 

The KHRC defines a positive finding as “substances present in the horse in excess of concentrations at which the substances occur naturally,” and makes no mention of the substance’s source. Former KHRC medical director Dr. Mary Scollay says the presence of betamethasone in a post-race sample calls for a “non-negotiable” disqualification, regardless of its source.

Had Baffert acknowledged as much and taken responsibility for Medina Spirit’s positive test, he almost certainly would have been welcomed back to the Derby by now and quite likely would have surpassed Ben Jones with a seventh win.  That his return to the race remains unscheduled most likely means he has not yet gone far enough to gain Churchill’s forgiveness and/or that management is unwilling to cede the spotlight for the sesquicentennial Derby. 

Surely, it’s the stubbornness of both sides that continues to prevent peace