California Horse Racing Sees Shakeup After Court Upholds Baffert Ban

Written By Sam Hollingsworth on March 7, 2023
Judge upholds Baffert suspension from 2023 Kentucky Derby

Two-time Triple Crown-winning horse trainer Bob Baffert will miss his second straight Kentucky Derby this year. The Southern California-based trainer’s latest attempt to obtain a preliminary injunction to lift a two-year suspension and allow him to run in this year’s Run for the Roses was shot down by a US District Court judge on Feb. 17 in Louisville, KY.

Baffert has been banned from Churchill Downs since a few days after the 2021 Kentucky Derby. The Hall of Fame trainer’s horse that won the race, Medina Spirit, tested positive for betamethasone, a prohibited race-day medication. 

As a result, there was some movement in the California horse racing industry.

Baffert’s former assistant will train most of his horses

Five Baffert horses potentially bound for the Kentucky Derby found new trainers immediately after the ruling. Former Baffert Baffert assistant Tim Yakteen took four, while Brittany Russell took the other. 

Baffert-trained horses had until Feb. 28 to find a new trainer. Otherwise, those horses will not be eligible for the Kentucky Derby. In the days between the ruling and the deadline, Yakteen took another four of Baffert’s horses.  

It seems the judge was right about Baffert failing to accept responsibility. His website claims he is a seven-time-winning Kentucky Derby trainer. However, his seventh was disqualified. And a gallery on his homepage also contains a picture from the winner’s circle after Medina Spirit’s “victory.”

CDI also pointed to his refusal to take responsibility in its brief opposing the injunction.

“Baffert refuses to accept responsibility for his wrongful actions. Now, as the two-year anniversary of his CDI suspension approaches, Baffert has renewed his motion in a brazen attempt to litigate his way into the 2023 Kentucky Derby. This belated, tactical and meritless motion should meet the same fate as his prior unsuccessful efforts to challenge his suspension.”

Baffert is still eligible to train horses for the other two legs of the triple crown

Pimlico Race Course never suspended Baffert. Furthermore, his New York Race Association-imposed one-year ban already expired. Consequently, he can run his horses in the second and third jewels of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes in Maryland and the Belmont Stakes in New York.

Despite the eligibility, the formerly Baffert-trained horses must physically change stables to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

Track stewards at Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia told Yakteen Sunday that his newly acquired horses must be moved from Baffert’s location to Yakteen’s stable at the other end of the barn area.

Two-year suspension stays in place

Baffert sought an injunction against Churchill Downs Inc., its CEO and its board chairman. It would have lifted the restrictions on Baffert-trained horses and any trainers employed by him. He can’t run horses at any of CDI’s racetracks, including in the Derby.

CDI welcomed the judge’s ruling.

“Churchill Downs is pleased that the court denied Mr. Baffert’s demand for a preliminary injunction and granted our motion to dismiss on all but one claim, and on that claim the court held that Mr. Baffert did not establish a likelihood of success on the merits. Today’s opinion is a victory for the integrity of horse racing, and we will continue to take action to protect the safety of our human and equine athletes.”

CDI-owned racetracks include the home of two of America’s most prominent races: the Derby and the Kentucky Oaks. They run on back-to-back days during the first weekend of May at Churchill Downs. CDI also owns the Fair Grounds Race Course In Louisiana, Colonial Downs in Virginia, Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania and Turfway Park in Kentucky.

Judge rules that CDI has the right to set its own policies

The six-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer was suspended from entering horses in all five of the above-mentioned tracks. A split-sample test from Medina Spirit on Derby Day confirmed the initial test. Baffert said the betamethasone got into Medina Spirit’s system through an ointment applied to heal a rash on the colt’s skin.

Baffert responded to the suspension by suing CDI. In the suit, he claims he did not receive fair due process.

On Feb. 17, Judge Rebecca Jennings of the Western District of Kentucky granted the gaming corporation’s motion to dismiss the case on five of the six counts that CDI had argued. She ultimately rejected Baffert’s argument on the grounds that CDI, as a privately owned entity, has the right to set its own disciplinary policies.

That is especially true for repeat offenders, the judge wrote in her ruling. She was referring to his horse Gamine failing a drug test at Kentucky Oaks in 2020.

“Baffert is the only trainer whose horses have tested positive in back-to-back marquee races on CDI tracks. Failing to punish trainers whose horses test positive in marquee races could harm CDI’s reputation and the integrity of their races. 

“Moreover, trainers have already earned points toward the 2023 Kentucky Derby. If plaintiff’s horses are allowed to race, then they would necessarily exclude those who would have otherwise qualified.”

Medina Spirit died in December 2021 after a workout at Santa Anita Park.

Photo by Shutterstock
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