EXPLANATOR: Why isn’t Bob Baffert in the Kentucky Derby?
Bob Baffert has been the face of American horse racing for nearly 30 years.
His success on the biggest sports stages and his mop of white hair make him extremely recognizable, even to the average person who doesn’t follow the sport outside of the Kentucky Derby.
He formed American Pharoah to the first Triple Crown sweep in 37 years in 2015. He repeated the feat with Justify in 2018.
In all, Baffert won a record six Kentucky Derbies, seven Preaknesses and three Belmonts.
But he won’t be at Churchill Downs on Saturday for the 148th Derby and it’s not because he has no suitors.
WHY IS BAFFERT BANNED FROM THE DERBY?
Churchill Downs Inc. has banned Baffert from entering horses on any of its tracks for this year and through mid-2023. The punishment stems from his 2021 Derby winner Medina Spirit failing a post-race drug test and subsequently being disqualified from that victory in a ruling handed down this year.
Medina Spirit tested positive for betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory drug. It is allowed in Kentucky but must clean a horse’s system at least 14 days before a race. It is considered a Class C drug, with less potential to influence performance, but any level of detection on race day is a violation.
At the same time, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission suspended Baffert for 90 days due to drug violations involving the trainer’s horses, including Medina Spirit.
This means he will miss the entire Triple Crown series: the Derby, Preakness on May 21 and Belmont Stakes on June 11.
Baffert has repeatedly failed in Kentucky to overturn the track ban or start of his suspension, which began April 4.
The 69-year-old Hall of Fame coach is suing Churchill Downs Inc. in federal court to end his suspension.
Baffert has saddled 34 horses in the Derby – the third in history – since his first appearance in 1996. Along with his six wins, he has had three seconds and three thirds.
This year will be only the sixth time that he has not had a horse in the race.
WHAT DOES BAFFERT SAY ABOUT THE FAILED MEDINA SPIRIT TEST?
The trainer said the positive test could be explained by an ointment used to treat a rash on Medina Spirit. He said a vet had recommended an antifungal cream which was applied daily. Lawyers for Baffert and Medina Spirit owner Amr Zedan said urine tests performed by a New York lab confirmed the foal tested positive for the anti-inflammatory not by injection but by because of the ointment used.
Kentucky racing officials said it doesn’t matter how the anti-inflammatory was administered, only that it was present on race day, which is not allowed.
The colt died in early December after training at Santa Anita. Baffert said it was a heart attack. An autopsy could not determine the cause.
WHAT DOES HIS SUSPENSION MEAN?
The 38 U.S. racing states operate on an informal system of reciprocity, which means that if an owner, trainer, or jockey is banned in one state, the others will generally honor that suspension.
Owners, trainers and jockeys must be licensed in each state in which they compete. These licenses are issued by state racing boards.
Baffert is based in Southern California, where the rules regarding suspensions go further.
Any trainer suspended for 60 days or more is banned from all Race Council approved facilities. Baffert had to remove signage identifying his barn in Santa Anita and vacate the premises when his suspension began.
WILL FORMER BAFFERT HORSES RUN IN THE DERBY?
Yes. Messier, the 8-1 early third pick, and 12-1 early shooter Taiba are the two Kentucky Derby starters who were previously coached by Baffert.
After Baffert’s legal attempts to overturn his ban and suspension in late March failed, some of his horses were transferred to other trainers by their owners.
HOW DID OTHER TRAINERS END UP TACKLING BAFFERT’S HORSES?
Tim Yakteen, a former assistant to Baffert who ran his own stable for 18 years, oversees Kentucky Derby contenders Messier and Taiba.
He has no immediate connection to Baffert and the owners of the horses have agreed to the moves. Owners generally expressed sympathy for Baffert.
Baffert is not permitted to contact Yakteen during his suspension.
Once Messier and Taiba transferred, they competed in qualifying races and earned enough points to earn places in the 20-horse Derby starting grid.
HAS BAFFERT BEEN IN PROBLEM BEFORE?
Yes, several times, but this is the most severe punishment he received. His filly, Gamine, tested positive for betamethasone after the 2020 Kentucky Oaks. It’s the same substance that Medina Spirit tested positive for after the Kentucky Derby last year.
In the Gamine case, which Baffert did not appeal, Kentucky racing officials fined him but did not suspend him. The filly was disqualified from a third place finish and the purse money she won was forfeited.
In April 2020, Gamine was disqualified after winning a race at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. That same day, Charlatan was disqualified after winning the Arkansas Derby. Both horses tested positive for lidocaine, a local anesthetic.
Baffert appealed both cases to Arkansas officials, who initially suspended him for 15 days and disqualified both horses. He succeeded in having the decisions overturned. The horses regained their top spot and he was fined $5,000 for each positive test.
Arkansas officials said the positive tests did not impact horse performance and were the result of inadvertent contamination. Baffert blamed the positive tests on a pain patch worn by an assistant who saddled the two horses.
WHEN CAN BAFFERT RETURN TO RACING?
His suspension ends on July 2. That gives him time to prepare for the start of the summer meeting at Del Mar, the San Diego-area track that opens July 22.
Last week, a hearing officer recommended a two-year suspension for Baffert in New York for repeated drug violations involving his horses that occurred in other states. The suspension still needs to be approved by a New York Racing Association panel. If approved, it would go into effect after Kentucky officials end his 90-day suspension.
Baffert plans to challenge the decision that could prevent him from entering horses in Saratoga in upstate New York when his summer season begins on July 14.
He’ll be back in time to enter horses in November at the Breeders’ Cup, the two richest days in North American racing. The event takes place at Keeneland, a track in Kentucky that is not owned by Churchill Downs Inc.
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